Date: March 5th
Location: Champaign, IL
Illinois Fighting Illini (17-12, 6-10)
Season So Far: Year two under John Groce was looking to be going a little worse than year one until the last couple games. The non-conference season didn't do much to build a strong resume for Illinois. The Illini got wins over Kenpom top-100 teams in UNLV and Missouri, but a loss to a bad Georgia Tech team puts a damper on that.
Of course, Illinois would win its first two Big Ten games before losing eight straight, including losses to Northwestern and Purdue. A win against Penn State in early February was Illinois' first in over a month, and was followed by two more losses. However, Illinois is now the winner of three straight against bubble teams Minnesota and Nebraska as well as Big Ten title contender Michigan State. That is to say that with a win over Michigan and Iowa to close the Big Ten season and a decent showing in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois has about as much right as any Big Ten bubble team to lobby for a spot in the tournament, despite losing eight straight games. Weird.
Illinois has one big thing going for it: defense. That 93.2 adjusted defensive efficiency rating is good for 14th in the nation, and in Big Ten play Illinois is only behind Ohio State and Nebraska. In conference games a big part of this overall defensive success has been predicated on two things. First, Illinois is managing the second best TO forcing defense in the Big Ten this year, with a matching rank of number two in steal percentage. Illinois will face a tough task throwing Michigan off its game in this regard, as Michigan is second in the conference in offensive TO%.
The other key to look out for is three point defense. Illinois in-conference three-point defense has been spectacular, limiting opponents to just 32.1% from beyond the arc, which is second in the conference. This is despite the fact that teams still take an above average number of three point shots relative to overall field goal attempts. Of course, the number one team in the conference in that stat is Ohio State, which saw Michigan hit 8 of 17 in the teams' only meeting of the year.
Rayvonte Rice (6'4 Jr.) and Tracy Abrams (6'2 Jr.) Will most likely be tasked with the toughest defensive assignments on Tuesday, and both players bring excellent defensive ability and a nationally ranked steal%. The difference is that Rice is Illinois highest usage and highest efficiency player on offense, while Abrams is a point guard without much in the way of finishing ability (75/38/27 shooting splits).
Inside MIchigan will have to contend with Nnanna Egwu (6'11 Jr.), who is a soft center if I've ever seen one. He shoots just 28% of his shots at the rim and is 44% from inside the arc because of this reliance on jumpers (and an ability to only finish 58% of those shots at the rim). His rebounding is so-so for a guy of his size, but his block rate is 56th nationally.
Jon Ekey (6'7 Sr.) is Illinois' outside gunner. He has taken a team high 136 3pt attempts and has hit 35% of them. He is also very much Just A Shooter, with only 56 2pt attempts and a FTRate of 10.4. Illinois will also rely on versatile forward Joseph Bertrand (6'6 Sr.) as well as freshman Kendrick Nunn (6'3), who sport the two highest eFG% on the team, shoot over 40% from outside (admittedly on limited attempts), and prefer not taking the ball into the lane.
Keys For Michigan: Illinois is going to present a stiff defensive test for Michigan, not unlike the strong perimeter defenses of Ohio State and Michigan State. The Wolverines have proven the ability to beat defenses like this thanks to a versatile offense capable of scoring from multiple positions, but Michigan has also fallen into a number of early holes thanks to poor shooting out of the gate.
Michigan needs to avoid the slow start and attack the Illinois defense. The best way to do this is to continue attacking the paint to force rotation and open up outside shots. If MIchigan settles for an 18 ft jump shooting contest on the road against a suddenly hot Illinois team, it could end poorly for them. The Wolverines need to bring the diverse offense that has carried them this far.
On the other end of the floor, Michigan needs to force Illinois to do what it already defaults to: shoot jump shots. The Illini shoot 8% more 2pt jump shots than the D-I average, and if MIchigan can make Illinois try and win with its jump shot, it bodes well for Michigan.
Outlook: Kenpom has this as a two-point MIchigan win, despite the fact that Illinois lost 10 of 11 Big Ten games at one point. That speaks to the efficiency of Illinois defense this season. Couple that with the recent run the Illini have been on and a tough road environment and this won't be a walk in the park for Michigan. If the Wolverines want to win the outright Big Ten title on Tuesday — something you know Illinois doesn't want to let happen on its home floor — it will take a dialed in effort on both ends of the floor. Of course, Michigan has been playing better basketball than anyone in the conference, so this isn't entirely out of the question.