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Preview: 7-5 Michigan vs. 10-3 Illinois

The 7-5 Michigan Wolverines kick off league play with a home tilt against the 10-3 Illinois Fighting Illini.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Who: 10-3 Illinois Fighting Illini

When: 3 ET (ESPN2)

Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Stage

We interrupt your previously scheduled Harbaugh for some hoops talk.

The nonconference slate ended with a disheartening thud for this young Wolverines squad, including a four-game losing streak with home losses against NJIT, EMU and SMU. The streak was marked by uncharacteristically poor shooting, out-of-sync offensive sets and an inability to control the painted area.

U-M finished that portion of their schedule with a 7-5 record, after a 6-1 start that included wins against Oregon and Syracuse and an admirable performance in defeat against Villanova.

But, the nice thing about today is that it marks the beginning of a new season: league play. It's a new start for these Wolverines, against a league that seems to be, thus far, not quite as strong as it has been the past couple of seasons.

Whatever happens, however, Michigan has to win at home, with one Jim Harbaugh in the house, sure to offer the Crisler crowd a halftime pep talk. Last year's conference opener on the road at Minnesota set the tone for what became a remarkable season after a somewhat underwhelming 6-4 start.

Will a win against the Illini offer the same sort of springboard? We'll find out.

Them

After a brief stint in the top 25, the Illini fell out after losses to Villanova (73-59) and Oregon at the United Center on Dec. 13.

Before then, however, John Groce's squad notched a nice win against Baylor (the Bears' only loss of the season to date) and recently defeated Mizzou in dramatic fashion, a Rayvonte Rice at the buzzer giving the Illini their second straight win in what is always a lively nonconference rivalry on the hardwood.

In terms of common opponents, this probably means very little, but the Illini defeated Coppin State earlier this season far more impressively than Michigan, 114-56. In perhaps more meaningful news, Michigan defeated Oregon, while the Illini lost, in front of a partisan United Center crowd. They also trailed Villanova by 16 with a couple of minutes to play after trailing by three at the eight-minute mark.

But, of course, this sort of cross comparison is even more of a tangled web of un-meaning than its college football counterpart.

The Illini roll into this one with a 10-3 record and a 93-45 thumping of Kennesaw State this past Saturday. With two solid wins and competitive outings against the other three nonconference opponents of note, this looks like a very solid Illini squad, one poised to secure a ticket to the Big Dance after finishing 20-15 last season and missing out.

Personnel

The aforementioned Rayvonte Rice leads the way for the Illini, an all-around offensive threat with big shot-making ability. Rice averages a team high 17.7 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game (also a team high). He's shooting a Stauskas-esque 47 percent from beyond the arc (51 attempts, third-most on the squad). On top of all that, Rice can defend: he's averaging 1.9 steals per game.

Rice scored 22 against Miami, 29 against Oregon and 19 against Mizzou, including this buzzer beater:

He had some games last season where he sort of disappeared, but save for a 5-of-15 outing against Villanova, Rice has come up big in every one of the Illini's big games to date. Caris LeVert et al are going to have their hands full checking Rice, a Champaign native.

Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill is the Illini's other double digit scorer (13.0 ppg). Like Rice, he's a big guard who can rebound (5.7 rpg). Hill can also shoot it from three (40.9 percent), albeit on just 22 attempts.

Now a sophomore, 6-foot-3 guard Kendrick Nunn averages 9.0 ppg and can also shoot it from downtown (43.6 percent).

Nnanna Egwu, the 6-foot-11 senior out of Chicago, has been talked about as a guy who perhaps doesn't rebound as well as he should for his size. Thus far, he's pulling down 5.4 rpg (plus 1.8 blocks per game). For what it's worth, he's 27th in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage and 51st in the same stat at the other end. He checks in at No. 9 in the Big Ten in block percentage, however.

Ahmad Starks, a 5-foot-9 Oregon State transfer, gives Illinois 7.7 ppg on 36 percent shooting (31 percent from three). Starks is tied for the team lead in assists with 3.1 per game.

The 6-foot-3 junior guard Aaron Cosby, a Seton Hall transfer, pitches in 8.2 ppg off of the bench, but isn't so efficient. Cosby shoots 30.8 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from beyond the arc.

F Leron Black and G Jaylon Tate are also bench options for the Illini, but neither have been huge factors against the Illini's big name nonconference opponents (on paper, at least). Tate can dish it, however; he's the one tied with Starks for the team lead in assists, which he's accomplished in 16 minutes per game to Starks's 24.

Game Keys

  • Defense. The Illini come in ranked fourth in the conference in both points per possession and possessions per 40 minutes. This Michigan outfit is not quite the offensive powerhouse it has been in recent years (to say the least) -- preventing Rice et al from grabbing easy buckets in the open floor will go a long way toward grinding out a victory. As strange as it is to say, a game in the 60s or lower is one Michigan has a chance of winning.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Ricky Doyle. The freshman Ricky Doyle scored a career high 16 points against Coppin State on Dec. 23, on 6-of-7 shooting. In wins against Oregon and Syracuse, Doyle scored 10 and 12 points, respectively. There seems to be a correlation between Doyle playing big and Michigan winning -- no kidding, Sherlock.
  • The shooting touch. After a strong start, the Wolverines' team three-point shooting percentage has plummeted to 35.8 percent, good for just 7th in the conference to date. Michigan has shooters: you know about Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and LeVert shot 41 percent last season, and Spike Albrecht has been known to bury a triple or two off of the bench. The question is: is this slump just an extended blip, or is it reality? No inside game whatsoever certainly leads to a greater volume of threes, many of which do not qualify as good looks. In the past, Michigan had the always reliable pick-and-roll connection with Jordan Morgan (not to mention fast break dunks) and the when-healthy Mitch McGary to give the Wolverines something, but that part of Michigan's game hasn't come along just yet. Even so, Michigan simply hasn't been hitting good looks with the consistency it has in the past. Basketball is a simple game: get the ball, score the ball. When your game is predicated upon the three-ball and the easy buckets that extension of the defense creates, you have to make the open looks you do get. Against an Illini team that is sure to push the pace, Michigan will get its share of good transition looks. Whether they go swish or rattle in and out will play a large role in Michigan's fighting chance.

The Outlook

Coming into this one, the Illini are the more consistent, accomplished team. John Groce's squad has beaten a pair of solid teams, like Michigan, and hung tough with a few others, like Michigan (e.g. against Villanova). If Michigan had found a way to grab wins against NJIT and EMU, the outlook might look much different, but that's water under the bridge.

Michigan's play to date does not inspire confidence, but there have been intermittent "light turning on" moments for the freshman bigs, Doyle and Mark Donnal. Michigan's "Big Three" in LeVert, Irvin and Walton went from carrying the team early to struggling mightily of late -- unfortunately for this squad, it likely cannot beat anyone of note with even one of them struggling in a given game, let alone two -- but, to be fair, Irvin and LeVert combined for an 11-of-31 mark from the field against Syracuse, so I'm not saying it's impossible, but 33 combined points from Doyle and Albrecht off of the bench mitigated that shooting stat to a great extent.

But, as all college basketball fans know, there is perhaps no greater equalizer in sports than the college basketball home court advantage. Roll your eyes if you must, but with Jim Harbaugh likely to be in the house, there will be a hopeful buzz in the air, an energy the team could very well feed off of; while the Crisler Center might not be the most consistently intimidating place to play, it has been known to get very loud when given the opportunity to do so in recent years.

When I sat down to write previews during the football season, it took me an extra game or two before the "this team is bad and I should adjust my predictions accordingly" light went on. I gave them credit based on nothing other than the notion that the Big Ten is not good at football and Michigan couldn't be this bad, right?

Well, this time I'm starting from the nadir and working up. Illinois is a good team, and certainly not invulnerable, but I need to see a return to that early season play we saw against teams like Oregon, Syracuse and Villanova before optimism levels tick toward the positive side of the ledger.

The two teams will play a fairly even, adrenaline-fueled first half, but an early second half cold streak puts the Wolverines behind; they'll claw their way back behind an amped home crowd, but in the end it won't be enough. Michigan 60, Illinois 67.