The Illini host Michigan this afternoon at 6pm. Michigan looks to stake a claim to number one in the nation as well as build on a conference winning streak as a brutal run of games against the top of the conference kicks off next weekend.
Illinois's new coach should be very familiar to Michigan fans. His last squad was Ohio, the MAC team that ousted Michigan in round one of the NCAA tournament a year ago. John Groce started hot at his current stop, leading Illinois to a 12-game win streak to begin the season, one that included a win over Gonzaga and was only halted with a road loss to a ranked Missouri team.
Things haven't been so rosy lately, as Illinois has struggled in Big Ten play thus far. The Illini opened up with a loss to Purdue and dropped three in a row before righting the ship against Nebraska. This includes uncompetitive beatdowns at the hands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as a double digit loss to Northwestern. Of course, Illinois also beat Ohio State by nearly 20 points, so the Illini are capable of turning on the jets.
The resurgence is led by the Illini's best player, Brandon Paul. The senior swingman is having his best offensive season under new leadership, his shooting percentages are up across the board, and he is attacking the basket and drawing fouls at an impressive rate (6.2 fouls drawn per 40 minutes). In the backcourt, guards Tracy Abrams and DJ Richardson are both effective players. Abrams struggles with turnovers, but is the most effective assist man on the team. Meanwhile, Richardson is the best shooter on the team next to Paul. The nearly unpronounceable Egwu roams the middle and isn't much of an effective offensive player (shoots just 47 percent from 2pt, and takes just 16 percent of Illinois' shots).
What to watch for
A spectacular implosion or an offensive supernova. Illinois is a talented team that doesn't always play like it. When the Illini are at their best they can beat almost anybody. A lot of this comes from streaky three point shooting. Illinois takes the 22nd largest percentage of three point shots in the country on a per game basis. When the shots are falling (11/26 vs. Gonzaga; 8/27 vs. Ohio State) Illinois is tough to beat. When they aren't (a combined 8/58 in the three game losing streak to Minn, Wisc, and NU), things get ugly.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois lives on disruptive plays. The Illini have the 38th best block percentage in the nation and the 74th best steal percentage. The Illini will get after the ball. Both Gonzaga and Ohio State were forced to turn the ball over on more than 20 percent of available possessions against Illinois.
Michigan's keys to win
1. Hold onto the ball - If Michigan can continue its trend of not turning the ball over, then the Wolverines should be able to run away with this one.
2. Pray Illinois doesn't get hot - MIchigan's big weakness in this one could very well be letting Illinois shoot its way into a good day. Michigan gives up a high percentage of three point shots (36.8, 294th nationally) and if Illinois can get them to fall at home, Michigan's offense will have a razor thin margin for error on the other side.
This just feels like one of those games, doesn't it? One where Michigan goes on the road and has to outlast a series of ever more ridiculous three point shots that fall from the heavens. Illinois has already proven itself good enough to hang with teams in Michigan's class. The Illini have had a few days to rest after a recovery win against Nebraska, and at home the odds are better that the shots go down. Kenpom thinks it will be a nine point game. I think it will be a nail biter thanks to a deluge of threes. Let's hope I'm wrong.