Who: Illinois Fighting Illini (8-5)
When: Wednesday, December 30th, at 3:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Where: State Farm Center -- Champaign, Ill.
It's finally here.
After spending the past three weeks stuffing itself with cupcakes, Michigan begins its Big Ten season today. This is when we'll learn whether U-M truly is a good team or not. It was difficult to discern from Michigan's non-conference performance what we should expect from U-M in Big Ten play. Though the Wolverines were 10-3 against non-Big Ten foes with two top-75 wins, they weren't able to hang with the three best opponents they faced, losing all of them by at least 14 points. As a result, Michigan has been slotted in the tier below the presumable Big Ten favorites (Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland). However, if Michigan wants to be a serious contender or at least earn enough wins to go dancing, U-M should win games in which it's a road favorite -- like this one today.
Also, it wouldn't hurt at all if Michigan opened its Big Ten season by winning in a place where last season's injury-riddled Wolverines blew a seven-point lead in the final three minutes and surrendered a 21-0 run before losing by 12 in overtime. This is a chance to show that this season's U-M team -- at full strength -- is ready for its tour of redemption.
Though it has won its last five games, Illinois has only an 8-5 record and is 111th on KenPom because the best team that it's beaten is #95 Yale and it's had many close calls with some bad opponents (#156 North Dakota State, #321 Chicago State, #340 Illinois-Chicago, and #177 Missouri). And that doesn't even note that the Fighting Illini's first loss was to #143 North Florida by 12 points in the opener. It hasn't been their best start.
However, Illinois has been snakebitten much like Michigan was last season. Sixth-year senior point guard Tracy Abrams tore his Achilles in the summer, suffering his second straight season-long injury, and its two best big men, Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black, are out indefinitely with knee injuries. It's put the Illini in a tough spot.
On offense, Illinois is 88th in adjusted efficiency (106.9) and perimeter-oriented similar to Michigan. The Illini have four guards or wings on the floor that are adept at handling the basketball, which is why Illinois is ninth in turnover rate (14.2 pct.). They also shoot lots of jumpers as Illinois is 347th out of 351 D-I team in percentage of shots taken at the rim (22.3). So it's not a surprise that the Illini are 298th in offensive rebounding rate (25.2 pct.) and 245th in free-throw rate (32.9 pct.). However, Illinois doesn't shoot the ball like Michigan. The Illini are 80th in eFG% (52.0), making 50 percent of their twos (109th) and 37 percent of their threes (83rd). This is why their offense isn't elite like Michigan's is.
Defense is where Illinois has most of its problems. The Illini are 174th in adjusted defensive efficiency (102.0), which is the second-worst among Big Ten teams, because they're an awful shooting defense (299th in eFG%). Not only have opponents finished 50.9 percent of their twos (244th), Illinois may have the worst three-point defense in the nation (313th in 3PA%, 315th in 3P%). As The Champaign Room's Jim Vainisi explained:
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.
Illinois is much better in other defensive areas. The Illini don't force many turnovers (149th in TO%), but they are a great defensive rebounding outfit (52nd in DR%) and don't commit many shooting fouls (23rd in FTR). Simply, opponents usually have only one field-goal try to get points against Illinois. But, usually, that isn't too much of a problem.
Illinois deploys a four-guard lineup, and it all starts with 6-foot-6 junior Malcolm Hill, who is the Big Ten's leading scorer with 18.7 PPG. Hill will play the role as Illinois' stretch four, but he's filled in as Illinois' go-to guy (115.4 ORtg, 26.1 usg%) after Rayvonte Rice graduated last year. He's an excellent scorer that can score from everywhere on the floor (51.7 2P%, 33.3 3P%) but seems to pull up for lots of two-point jumpers. Further, he's become a much better passer and creator on offense. Last season, Hill averaged only 1.3 APG and had an assist rate of 10 percent. This season, those numbers are 3.9 APG and 22.1 percent. Accordingly, expect Hill to be used in most of the Illini's offensive sets.
Illinois has a second dangerous weapon in 6-foot-3 junior Kendrick Nunn. He missed the first five games of the season with a torn ligament in his thumb, but he didn't miss a beat when he returned. He's averaged 18.5 PPG in the eight games in which he's participated, which is tied for second in the Big Ten and just a smidge behind Hill. Though Nunn can score around the rim (53.8 2P%), he thrives from behind the three-point line (42.1 pct.), having made at least two threes in every game. Nunn can knock down some of those threes off the dribble, but he's much more of a catch-and-shoot threat. Expect him to stand in the corner as Illinois runs pick and rolls to his side.
The other two starting guards are 6-foot-3 freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands and 6-foot-3 junior Jaylon Tate. Coleman-Lands is a name that Michigan fans should remember because he was a target of John Beilein's for a long time. In his first season with the Illini, he's averaged 8.5 PPG as a three-point specialist, attempting 69 threes to just 18 twos. Coleman-Lands does his job well, though, draining 42 percent of his threes. However, ask him to do anything else, and it usually ends poorly because he's made only 33 percent of his twos and has a turnover rate (19.9 pct.) that more than triples his assist rate (6.2 pct.). Tate is the designated point guard, who usually doesn't play many minutes (15.7 MPG) or get many offensive touches (13.1 usg%) because he's a subpar shooter (41.2 eFG%) and has a terrible turnover rate (30.7 pct.). However, he should see more time today because 6-foot-3 reserve Khalid Lewis reportedly will be out with the mumps.
At center, Illinois will start 6-foot-10 freshman Michael Finke, who has stepped in quite well for the injured Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black. In his five starts, he's averaged 14.6 PPG with a 72.2 eFG%. That's pretty good. However, Finke isn't doing this with his back to the basket. He's doing this in pick-and-pop situations on the perimeter, where he's knocked down 56.2 percent of his two-point jumpers and 44.4 percent of his threes. A consequence of this, though, is Finke doesn't do much on the offensive glass. In fact, he doesn't do much on the defensive glass (11.2 DR%) or as a rim protector (0.8 blk%) either.
With Lewis likely to miss today's game, there will be three reserves that Illinois brings off the bench. The most notable one is 6-foot-10 junior center Maverick Morgan. He'll score more with his back to the basket and grab a larger share of rebounds than Finke, but he doesn't get many post touches. The other two are freshmen guards in Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams. Jordan usually just shoots threes (70.6 3PA%) and makes them at a good rate (36.1 pct.), while Williams struggles on the offensive end (58.8 ORtg).
Penetrate the Paint: Illinois may have the worst three-point defense in country, but it stems from the fact that the Illini don't prevent much dribble penetration. Whether it's against ISO or pick-and-roll defense, Illinois' opponents have been able to get into the paint to create offense. This is fantastic news for Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and the rest of Michigan's offense, which excel in ISO and pick-and-roll situations. Not only will this lead to open looks around the rim, where Illinois doesn't have a shot-blocker, this will force the defense to collapse and leave Michigan's three-point snipers open on the perimeter. So, if Michigan can get past the first line of defense, points should come easily.
Don't Have a Cold Shooting Effort: As I just mentioned, Illinois allows lots of open threes, and Michigan is one of the best three-point-shooting teams (16th in 3PA%, 10th in 3P%). Barring an off game, the Wolverines should make it rain from three this afternoon.
Contest Illinois' Jumpers: Led by Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, Illinois isn't a team that's seeking to attack the basket, especially since Michael Finke replaced the injured Mike Thorne, Jr. The Illini's offense will consist of sets that lead to pull-up jumpers and pick-and-pop shots. The good news is this means that Michigan won't face an offense that bullies it in the paint or dominates the glass, which has given U-M the most problems. However, Illinois still is capable of getting hot on the perimeter. Michigan's perimeter defense needs to be solid and get its hands in the faces of Illinois' shooters.
Road games in the Big Ten never are easy, but this is a matchup that greatly favors Michigan. Using ISO and pick and rolls, the Wolverines' offense should shred Illinois' defense for open looks at the rim and, particularly, on the three-point line. On the other end, the Illini don't have the personnel to push Michigan around in the paint without Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black. Rather, Illinois is a jump-shooting team like Michigan but not nearly as good as Michigan. The Wolverines may have a few first-half, road-game jitters, but, by the second half, they should be able to pull away from the Fighting Illini.
Michigan 75, Illinois 65
Make sure to read our full Q&A with The Champaign Room's Jim Vainisi!