Hoops Quarterfinal Preview: Illinois

Andy Lyons

Time for a Big Ten Tournament edition of the preview, as the Wolverines face off against the Illini, the victors of Thursday's 8/9 matchup.

Date: Friday, March 14

Time: 12 ET

Place: Bankers Life Fieldhouse--Indianapolis, Ind.

TV: ESPN

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Happy Pi Day to everyone; as a gift to you, this preview will be a little shorter to give you the opportunity to memorize digits of pi like you're Zack Novak.

Season So Far

Much of the Big Ten bubble focus has been on Minnesota and to a lesser (and sillier) extent, Iowa given their nosedive at the end of the season, capped by a first round loss to Northwestern last night.

Don't look now, but the Illini are kind of on a roll. It's remarkable how much less time you spend on bracketology when your team is a lock for the tournament, so I'm not entirely sure what the Illini's chances at going dancing really are. But, given how they closed the season, if they tack on a win against Michigan and another in the semifinals, you'd think that might be enough, no? This might be especially true if fellow bubblemate Minnesota can't upset Wisconsin today.

A win today would get Illinois to 20 on the season. While some Michigan fans might think this should be a slamdunk given the result in Champaign, the Illini are playing to keep what little tournament hopes they have alive. Also, as you need any more data to confirm that anything can happen in this Big Ten basketball season: Northwestern defeated Iowa last night despite losing to them by 26 twice during the regular season.

In short, what happened on March 4 between these two squads should have little bearing on this game.

Personnel

Illinois is led offensively by the mercurial Rayvonte Rice, who seemed to alternate between 20-point performance and dreadful shooting nights.

Rice averages 15.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg, both team-highs. With that said, he's not incredibly efficient, as he shoots just 42 percent from the field overall and 31 percent from beyond the arc. Luckily for coacj John Groce, Rice has steadied himself a little bit down the stretch--the junior from Champaign scored in the double digits in his last five outings.

Tracy Abrams averages 10.5 ppg, but he is even less efficient than Rice. Abrams shoots 34 percent from the field overall and 28 percent from three on the third-most attempts (behind Rice and Jon Ekey).

Naturally, Abrams dropped 25 points on IU yesterday, because nothing makes sense. Regardless, Michigan can't afford to let him get into a groove like that again tomorrow.

The 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu does the rebounding and rim-protecting business for the Illini. Egwu averages 2.1 blocks per game, and he boasts a 5th-best-in-the-B1G block percentage of 8.9 percent. Not exactly Jeff Withey-esque "abandon all hope, ye who enter here" but Egwu is most definitely a force in the middle.

Star freshman Kendrick Nunn, like Rice, has also been big during the Illini's strong stretch run. In their last six games, Nunn is averaging 12.3 ppg. Nunn boasts a 41 percent mark from three this season, best on the team. Needless to say, he's been and will continue to be a big time player for Illinois. Is he as good as Victor Oladipo? Well, I don't know about that just yet. Nonetheless, the young kid can ball.

Lastly, Jon Ekey is your "find that guy" three-point gunner. Ekey leads Illinois with 143 three-point attempts--he's connected on 36 percent of them.

Game Keys

  • Fight through misses. There will be the completely unreasonable expectation of a repeat of Michigan's shooting performance against Illinois the first time around; that is not going to happen.
  • First 10 minutes. Michigan had made a bad habit of slow starts (again, the Illinois game notwithstanding). In a tense post-season environment, nothing is worse than letting the underdog hang around, as silly as that can sound to the most cliche-phobic folks. Illinois has talent, and given their forced turnovers total at the tail end of the season, that talent is working hard for Groce on both ends of the floor.
  • Patience. This is a slight variant of the first point, but Michigan has to be patient. Stauskas doesn't need to launch a three from Kokomo just because that shot went in for him against the Illini 10 days ago. If the transition offense is there, run. If not, get into the secondary break stuff. If that's not there, pull it back, run some offense, pick and roll, what-have-you.

Outlook

There is really no point in making a prediction, especially since I did not have the opportunity to watch Illinois-Indiana yesterday. With that said, assuming Michigan doesn't play like it's playing Indiana, the Wolverines should be able to duplicate their Fat Tuesday win in Champaign (perhaps not in scope, but the ultimate results).

But, as Northwestern showed last night against Iowa, in addition to the countless other Big Ten upsets this season, anything can happen.
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