With Indiana's win at Michigan State on Tuesday, the Wolverines' chances at a regular season title took a hit. I'm still saying there's a chance, but for it to happen Michigan will need to win out, while also having Indiana drop one of @Minnesota, Iowa or Ohio State. Stranger things have happened (see: Indiana's loss at Illinois on a wide open buzzer-beating layup), but I'm not necessarily counting on it.
In any case, as disappointing as a tremendous regular season such as this without a regular season title would be, especially after Michigan's great start and ascension to No. 1 on multiple occasions, I am more concerned with how Michigan actually looks on the court before the tournaments begin.
It's amazing how four games can reverse a season's worth of good will and faith, especially with respect to the freshmen. Was the recent downturn in production the result of standard college basketball home-road bipolarity? Was it the uptick in level of competition? Are they in fact as good as we thought they are? As revealing as those four games were, the next four will be fairly enlightening as well. Whether or not Michigan gains a share of the title, if the freshmen are making plays and the defense tightens up a bit --hopefully a week of Beilein building the team up with footage of good Michigan defense does the trick-- during these final four games, I think we can call this regular season an unadulterated success.
However, the road won't be easy, and it begins with Illinois tomorrow in the Crisler Center Arena Building (1 ET, ESPN). It seems forever ago that Michigan went down to Champaign and staved off several Illini runs en route to a comfortable 74-60 road victory.
Unfortunately, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the Wolverines, with Jordan Morgan's ankle being a casualty. He's been hobbled since, and many will argue (myself included) that this has been the biggest factor in Michigan's defensive decline, going from adequate/decent to downright bad.
Whether or not Morgan is ready to contribute solid minutes tomorrow (my guess is no), the Wolverines will need to be ready to defend a surging Illinois team. After starting the Big Ten schedule with a 2-7 mark (wins coming at Purdue and at Nebraska), this Illini outfit appeared to be 2011-12 redux. Since falling at the hands of the Wolverines, the Illini lost two more, a far more competitive showing at the Breslin Center than Michigan put forth and a 6-point loss to Wisconsin at home.
Since then, the Illini have rattled off five wins in a row, beginning with the thrilling home defeat of Indiana. They went on to knock off Minnesota at The Barn, Purdue at Mackey by 20, a comfortable revenge win at Northwestern and a close win at home against Penn State on Thursday. With winnable games against Nebraska and at Iowa still on the docket, and upset opportunities at Michigan and Ohio State as well, this seems to be a tournament team based on quality wins alone.
By now, you should be fairly familiar with the rosters around the league, so I'll keep this section relatively brief. Brandon Paul continues to lead the way as the Illini's lead shot taker, averaging 16.4 ppg with an eFG% of 49%. As is well-documented by now, he might not be the most efficient player, but when he goes off, he really goes off. His conference game high is "just" 21, but he did have a very impressive 35-point outing at Gonzaga on Dec. 8.
Senior guard D.J. Richardson averages 12.9 ppg and has taken the most threes of any Illini player, making them at a 33% clip. Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams is Illinois' third double-digit-averaging guy (10.6 ppg); Abrams is fourth on the team in 3PA and is just 30% from beyond the arc.
Six foot six inch junior guard Joseph Bertrand pitches in 8.2 ppg and 4.5 rpg, shooting a cool 53% from the field and 34% from three on 47 attempts. All of the focus vis-a-vis Glenn Robinson III's declining production (PSU game notwithstanding) has been on his offensive game, but for him to be a plus player in this one he'll need to do it on the defensive end against Bertrand.
F Tyler Griffey is contributing 7.3 ppg, but is also mediocre from three (32% on 94 attempts). If you'll remember, he was the one who scored the game-winning layup against Indiana. Also, he exploded against Michigan in Crisler last season for 18 points on 7/14 from the field. He only scored eight combined points against Northwestern and PSU, but he did average 14 ppg during the Indiana-Minnesota-Purdue stretch of the winning streak.
MGoBlog fascination, six foot eleven inch Nnanna Egwu, is averaging 6.5 ppg and just 4.5 rpg. He's shot 48% from the field during the current winning streak, but still only boasted 3 rpg during that span.
F Sam McLaurin is technically a starter, averaging 4.4 ppg while shooting 47% from the field. SF Myke Henry rounds out the rotation of meaningful contributors, averaging 10.4 minutes per game. He had a decent outing against PSU on Thursday, scoring seven points in 10 minutes of play. He's a decent three-point shooter as well; he shoots 35% from there, albeit in 43 attempts.
- Three-point D. Whether you think three-point defense is a "skill" or not, Michigan can't afford to leave guys open all over the place, as has been their tendency at times. Sure, Illinois shoots a lot of threes and doesn't make as many as they should, but, as every Illinois preview ever in the last two years should note, they can get hotter than a ghost chili pepper if you let 'em. You simply have to hope that you are not the one getting burned and/or Paul'd.
- Ball pressure. This has been a talking point of Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau the last few days, and it applies to Michigan as well. Michigan's on the ball defense has to improve, as last week's PSU game painfully illustrated. PSU, the worst team in the conference (long since without star player Tim Frazier), penetrated Michigan's perimeter D with disturbing ease. Illinois is often content to rise and fire from outside, but their talent level is much higher than that of Penn State, and they certainly can make Michigan pay going to the basket and on drive and kicks to willing shooters.
- Gotta be fresh. With a week off since Michigan's last game and a second straight home game, let's hope the freshmen are decidedly less freshmany tomorrow. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III had very nice games against PSU (caveats go here), but Mitch McGary scored zero points on 0/4 from the field with just three boards and two turnovers. Unless the week off was the Brawndo that JMo's ankle craves, the Wolverines will need McGary to be the crunkly player we know he can be. Egwu is somewhat of a shot-blocking threat, but McGary needs to be able to finish around the rim in this one. The Illini interior D is not quite as imposing as MSU's Payne/Nix combo; if McGary pitches in the six points and eight rebounds he had in Michigan's trip to Champaign, the odds are very good that Michigan wins this game relatively comfortably.
- Brandon Paul is 29th in the B1G during conference play in turnover percentage (19.2%).
- Illinois is ninth in the B1G in defensive rebounding percentage (65.7%), but fourth in offensive rebounding percentage (33%).
- John Groce's Illini are second in the conference in 3PA during conference play. They are ninth in three-point percentage during that span (29%).
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.
This is a classic example of the common fan's ruminations on the worth of a bye week (which is what this past week has effectively been). Will the Wolverines come out FIRED UP or lackadaisical and tentative? If the Wolverines are down at the half, should Michigan fire John Beilein? I'll hang up and listen.
But seriously, this is a game Michigan should win. Gone are the days of Michigan simply blowing teams out by 30, but one would think that Michigan has more than enough to beat an Illinois team, recent surge notwithstanding, at home.
Although Tracy Abrams has apparently picked up his defensive game of late (according to John Groce's grading system), Trey Burke will do Trey Burke things as long as he's not being checked by Aaron Craft.
As always, Tim Hardaway Jr.'s outside shooting can be somewhat of a wild card; he will be looking to bounce back from poor shooting performances in his last two outings. On the bright side, his 12 point, 67% eFG% at Illinois on Jan. 27 bodes well.
Assuming Trey Burke does what he does, THJ has an at least average shooting day and at least one of the freshmen shows up like they can, this should probably be a comfortable win capped by a final minute of free throw shooting. I wouldn't be surprised if the Illini got hot from outside and managed to pull off a win, but I don't think it's especially likely. Then again, I've been wrong many times before.
Michigan 77, Illinois 68.