Michigan opens its Big Ten season tomorrow on the road against Illinois. To get a better idea of what the Wolverines will see at the State Farm Center, we spoke with Illinois expert Jim Vainisi, who's the editor-in-chief of The Champaign Room, which is SB Nation's Illinois team site. In our Q&A, Jim discussed how numerous injuries to key players have affected Illinois' expectations this season, why Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are two of the Big Ten's three leading scorers, and whether Illinois has any chance of shutting down the Wolverines' three-point assault.
Oh, and Jim included his prediction for tomorrow, too. So check it out below!
Injuries have been the story of this Illinois season. Point guard Tracy Abrams tore his Achilles and will miss his second straight year with a severe injury. Sharpshooter Kendrick Nunn sat out the first five games with a torn ligament in his thumb. And big men Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black are out indefinitely with knee injuries. What were Illinois' expectations in the preseason and how have the injuries affected them?
Heading into the offseason, I think it’s safe to say that most Illini fans expected the 2015-16 squad to be an upper middle-tier team in the Big Ten while making the NCAA Tournament with relative ease. Injuries have completely decimated those expectations. Like you mentioned, sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams will miss his second straight year -- this time with an Achilles injury suffered during the summer -- and the Illini were left scrambling for another point guard to provide depth. Mike Thorne Jr. (graduate transfer from Charlotte) was shaping up to be one of the conference’s best post players until he went down with a torn meniscus, and he’s presumably out for the year. Finally, Leron Black was diagnosed with a similar injury after a very promising overseas trip; the coaching staff rushed him back, his knee got worse, and now he’s out indefinitely. So if you tally up just the major injuries, Illinois is down three starters.
As for how exactly those injuries have impacted expectations? It depends on who you ask. For a pretty good portion of the fan base, Illinois’ marvelous history of zero national championships warrants reason to set the bar at ‘NCAA Tournament or bust’ every year regardless of outside factors. For other, slightly more realistic fans (including me!), the likelihood of a third straight NIT appearance has been pretty much accepted.
Illinois is led by junior wings Malcolm Hill (18.7 PPG) and Kendrick Nunn (18.5 PPG), who are two of the Big Ten's three leading scorers. How does Illinois try to run the offense through them? And what are Hill and Nunn's strengths and weaknesses?
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are two potential All-Conference pieces for the Illini (albeit second- or third-teamers because we suck). However they each make their impact in different ways. Hill, for instance, has become more of a focal point this year by handling some playmaking/distributing responsibilities; he’s even seen quite a bit of time at point guard since he rarely makes a bad decision with the ball in his hands. Of course, he’s also more than capable of putting the ball in the basket as he’s leading the Big Ten in scoring. While Hill is a pretty complete offensive player, his one ‘weakness’ would probably be 3PT shooting (down to 33% since he’s taking a higher volume of shots). His defense could still use some work, too.
Nunn is an explosive athlete, and he’s probably Illinois’ best defender. On offense, he’s become a volume shooter that’s often stationed in one of the corners waiting for a pass. You’ll definitely see him drive to the basket quite a bit, but he does most of his damage in transition and from behind the arc. Nunn’s biggest weakness right now might be off-hand dribbling. He’s definitely improved in that aspect during his time in Champaign, but he still opts to pass probably 80% of the time when going to his right.
Other than having Hill initiate the offense, the Illini don’t exactly do anything else out of the ordinary to get the duo involved since the other players typically defer to them. One set they call quite a bit, though, is a pick-and-roll with Hill (ball handler) and Michael Finke (picker) towards the side of the court that has Nunn waiting to shoot in the corner. They’ve gotten pretty damn good at that.
Two areas where Michigan has been exposed are its interior defense and on the glass. However, Illinois won't have its two best rebounders in Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black. How have freshman Michael Finke and junior Maverick Morgan filled the void in the front-court? Can Finke and Morgan pose problems for Michigan down low?
Replacing two guys like Thorne and Black isn’t easy. Luckily, the Illini have somehow managed to do it while avoiding complete disaster. Most of that stems from the incredible play of redshirt freshman Michael Finke (more on him in a moment), but junior center Maverick Morgan has also been a relative surprise. Morgan finally took a step forward in his development this offseason and he’s the only traditional post threat on the team; you’re not going to see him in the game too much, but he’s a fairly average Big Ten backup.
If it weren’t for the early dominance of Hill and Nunn, Michael Finke would be the biggest story out of Champaign. Playing as the lone post player in Illinois’ four guard lineup, the 6-foot-10 big man is averaging 10.3 points per game while shooting 57.0% from the field (44.4% 3PT); his overall offensive rating is also one of the top fifty in the country. Finke’s defense still has a ton of room for improvement, but he’s done a serviceable job thus far considering he’s guarding slightly out of position.
So as long as the U-M big men are comfortable defending away from the basket against Finke, I don’t see the Illini post players causing many problems (especially down low). Illinois has been a surprisingly good team on the defensive boards, but a lot of that stems from perimeter players crashing to the glass once a shot is put up.
One matchup that stands out is Michigan's three-point shooting versus Illinois' three-point defense. U-M's offense is 18th in 3PA% and 11th in 3P%, while Illinois' defense is 312th in 3PA% and 315th in 3P%. Why have opponents had that much success from outside against Illinois? Is Illinois' perimeter defense that poor? And do the Illini have any chance of stopping U-M from the outside other than praying U-M has an off night?
OK, so Michigan probably isn’t the best matchup for the Illini.
I think a huge part of Illinois’ 3PT defensive struggles stem from a lack of rim protection down low (281st in defensive block percentage, 241st in 2PT%). But, numbers aside, Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan aren’t exactly the most intimidating duo, either. As a result, the perimeter defenders are giving their assignments an extra foot or so of space in order to prevent them from driving to the basket. That doesn’t seem like much, but it surely accounts for at least some of the outrageously bad numbers we’ve seen. Another potential cause could be the inexperience of the freshmen wings since they’re still getting acclimated to defensive expectations.
And to answer your last question, I don’t think Illinois has any chance at slowing down the Wolverines’ three-point barrage. They should just focus on production at the other end of the floor since that’s their best shot at staying in the game.
KenPom believes Michigan is a much better team than Illinois (#34 to #114) but gives the Wolverines only a three-point edge because the game will be played at the State Farm Center. What's your prediction? Which team will open the Big Ten season at 1-0?
My #analysis: This won’t be a three-point game. Illinois’ defense has definitely improved lately, but I don’t think they stand a chance against Caris LeVert and the Michigan offense. Look for the Illini to maybe hang around throughout the first half before the Wolverines run away with it down the stretch.
Also, I don’t think KenPom accounts for students being away on Winter break, so Illinois won’t have anything close to their usual home court advantage on Wednesday.
Michigan 84, Illinois 68
Thanks to Jim for taking the time to answer our questions! Follow him on Twitter here.