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Opponent Preview: Illinois

With Michigan State's fortunate loss at Indiana on Tuesday, Michigan still has an outside shot of gaining a share of the Big Ten title. To do so, the Wolverines must win against Illinois tonight, win at Penn State on Sunday, and Ohio State must win against Michigan State in East Lansing on Sunday. Michigan needs help, but could eliminate itself with a loss to Illinois tonight. It's a very big game for the Wolverines and the Illini: Michigan is playing for a Big Ten title and tournament seeding and Illinois could salvage some of their season with a big home win on Senior Day. Bruce Weber's squad has collapsed and it looks like he'll be fired, but the Illini still have plenty of talent and could pull the upset in a very tough environment down in Champaign.

Last time we met:

Michigan won a 70-61 contest in Ann Arbor, the sixth loss in seven games for the Illini. Star center and future lottery pick Meyers Leonard scored the first two baskets for Illinois, but was held scoreless from the field for the rest of the game and only finished with five points, although he did grab 12 rebounds. Illinois actually opened the game on a 7-2 run, but a 10-1 run from Michigan put the Wolverines ahead and gave them a lead they'd never relinquish. Despite some surprisingly hot shooting from reserve forward Tyler Griffey (he finished with 18 points), Michigan went into halftime with a seven-point lead and pulled away for a comfortable win.

Zack Novak, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Evan Smotrycz each scored in double digits for the Wolverines; Hardaway led the team in scoring with 15 on 5-9 shooting (2-3 from three) and played one of his best games in Big Ten play. Novak did well on the boards (9 rebounds), which isn't surprising at this point, and added most of his points late. Burke was inefficient (5-15 shooting) but his line of 14 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals was decent. Smotrycz, who played a lot of minutes due to foul trouble for Jordan Morgan, used his versatility to score from the perimeter against the Illinois bigs and used his quickness to get to the basket and to the free throw line. Matt Vogrich was 3-3 from the field and added 8 points.

Since then:

Illinois has struggled mightily. After starting the season off with a 15-3 record (4-1 Big Ten) capped with a home upset of Ohio State -- still one of the most absurd games of the year, considering Brandon Paul's ridiculous 43 points -- and entered the Top 25. The Illini promptly dropped a dreadful game at Penn State to start a stretch where they lost nine of ten games, including a 23 point loss to Nebraska that had Leonard in tears on the bench. They did notch a decisive win over a pretty hot Iowa team on Sunday, so they're still a dangerous team. The Illini are currently 17-12 (6-10) and have gone from a Big Ten title contender to a team that's NIT-bound with a coach who is soon to be fired. It's been a brutal implosion, but Illinois definitely has the talent to win against a lot of teams (including Michigan).

Players to Watch:

  • Center -- Meyers Leonard: Leonard is a legitimate 7'1" lottery pick with long arms, a developed post game, and solid athleticism. He might be the best pro prospect in the Big Ten, but Illinois struggled to get him looks in the first game, even with Morgan in foul trouble.
  • Guard -- Tracy Abrams: He's been a part of the starting lineup and recorded 31 minutes against Michigan, but the four-star freshman only recorded one point, didn't get a rebound, and contributed three assists. Abrams is not a very good shooter and is turnover-prone.
  • Guard -- Joseph Bertrand: Until a coming-out party against Missouri (19 points on 9-9 shooting), Betrand had been a little-used reserve but he has been a part of the Illini rotation ever since. He is Illinois's best rebounding guard.
  • Guard -- Brandon Paul: The junior has been a high usage, low efficiency player for Illinois this year, but is obviously capable of taking over games and scoring lots of points. He did get to 21 points against Michigan on 6-12 shooting last time.
  • Guard -- D.J. Richardson: Also a junior, Richardson is another talented guard who doesn't always play to his potential. Unfortunately for Michigan, Richardson is capable of getting hot from three and putting in a big day, but he struggled mightily in Ann Arbor and went 4-13 from the field.
  • Bench -- Tyler Griffey (Forward): Griffey is the sixth man off the bench for the Illini, and is a good rebounder, especially on offense. He's not a great three point shooter, but he made three against Michigan earlier this year.
  • Bench -- Nnanna Egwu (Center): The freshman is Leonard's primary backup at the five spot and provides good size off of the bench. He doesn't contribute much offensively.

Four Factors Profile:

Offense B1G Rank Defense B1G Rank
eFG % 49.3 8 52.1 8
TO % 21.7 10 19.5 4
OR % 29.0 9 29.7 5
FT Rate 31.9 8 36.7 10

What to Look for:

  1. How well does Michigan play against Leonard? The Wolverines have done well lately against traditional big men (including Leonard) and having Jordan Morgan's impact on this game should help, but Leonard is still very capable of giving Michigan's short front line a ton of problems.
  2. Are any of the mercurial scorers (Illinois's Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson and Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr.) capable of having a monster night? All three have seen their share of struggles, and all three are capable of a monster night. Let's hope it's Hardaway.
  3. Can Michigan get another road win? The Wolverines have gone 3-6 in road games this season and tonight's game provides them with another chance to better that mark. Illinois plays in front of an imposing home crowd in Assembly Hall, so Michigan will do well to take the crowd out of the game early.

To be totally honest, I could see this going one of two ways: Michigan could either a.) completely overwhelm an opponent that has completely fallen apart and take them to the woodshed or b.) get caught in a dogfight with a very talented team. Bruce Weber is as good as gone, Meyers Leonard probably is too, and a season with high hopes has been a complete disappointment. However, I could see Illinois rallying the troops, playing well in front of a home crowd, and pulling the upset. Their profile indicates mediocrity, but Illinois has plenty of talent and is capable of beating anyone (just ask Ohio State). Pomeroy's numbers predict a 61-60 Michigan win, and I'll go with Michigan -- just be aware that this is not a given and the Wolverines have some work to do to get in position for a share of the Big Ten Title.