Who: 16-8 (6-5) Illinois Fighting Illini
When: 9 ET (ESPN)
Where: State Farm Center -- Champaign, Ill.
Michigan hits the road once again, this time to face an Illinois squad it defeated in Ann Arbor earlier in the season. However, injuries have ravaged both teams, taking Rayvonte Rice from the Illini and both Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton from the Wolverines.
At 13-11 (6-6), the Wolverines would likely have to finish 5-1 and win at least a game (probably two) in the Big Ten tournament to land a tournament berth -- in short, it's an unlikely proposition. The Wolverines face a brutal four-game stretch now, traveling to Champaign, then getting Michigan State and Ohio State at home, then traveling to Maryland, before closing the season at Northwestern and then coming back to Crisler for a rematch against Rutgers.
Like Matthew McConaughey and his seemingly indefinite, desultory road trip across America, it is definitely "enjoy the ride" time. This season became about next season as soon as LeVert went out; it certainly became that when Walton did. Enjoy the little victories, for they are potential precursors to bigger ones down the road.
Rice hasn't played since the Jan. 3 16-point defeat at Ohio State. At that point, you wouldn't have been insane to think that hard times were ahead for the Illini. Naturally, they've gone 6-3 since then (losses at Nebraska, home against Indiana and at Minnesota).
In that time, they've beaten current top six Big Ten foes in Maryland and Purdue (both at home), and scored an impressive road victory in East Lansing this past Saturday, 59-54, after going down 10-2 early. Malcolm Hill led the way with 19 points, while big man Nnanna Egwu scoring 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting while reeling in nine boards.
After playing four of their first five conference games away from the State Farm Center, the Illini have found their groove of late. They're 4-1 at home during Big Ten play, and currently sit half a game ahead of Michigan in the conference standings at 8th.
I previewed the Illini way back on Dec. 30 -- you can check there for a lengthier personnel rundown than this one.
Of course, the major difference since these teams last met is the injury of Rice, who led Illinois in points, rebounding and three-point shooting.
In his absence, sophomore guard Malcolm Hill has carried the load, scoring in the double digits in every game since Rice went down. Since then, he's averaging 17.7 points per game, a stretch including a 28-point outburst in the win against Maryland and 27 against Penn State, a two-point victory. During that nine-game stretch, he's shot a sterling 42.2 percent from three (he's at 41.7 percent for the season).
Fellow guard Kendrick Nunn can fill it up, too. Save for the Maryland win, he's also been in the double digits in scoring in every game since Rice went down, including 25 against Northwestern, 24 against Indiana and 21 against Rutgers. As I saw in person when Illinois came to Evanston, when Nunn finds his groove from outside, there are stretches when he seemingly cannot miss.
The aforementioned Egwu is a familiar name by now. The 6-foot-11 senior is not a first-option post scorer by any means, but he's come up big of late when called upon. Against Purdue's massive front line, he scored 11 points and grabbed seven boards. Against Michigan State, he notched a 12 and 9. Also of note: he went 2-of-3 from beyond the arc against the Spartans. Illinois won that game by five.
Guard Jaylon Tate and forward Leron Black round out the starting five for John Groce's squad. Black, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Memphis, also had a huge game against Purdue (15 points, 12 rebounds). He also put up 12 points in the 12-point win against Rutgers on Feb. 3.
With guard Aaron Cosby out with an eye injury (then an indefinite suspension) for the past five games, Ahmad Starks -- a 5-foot-9 senior transfer from Oregon State -- has also had to pick up some slack off of the bench. His road has been a little rockier. Starting with the Purdue game on Jan. 21, he's shot: 1-of-9, 3-of-10, 3-of-6, 5-of-10 and 2-of-9. He's a 32 percent three-point shooter for the season.
- Don't let Nunn find his rhythm. When the sophomore can just spot up and receive a drive-and-dish pass, or find an open pocket of space in a sequence of defensive discombobulation, Nunn can be deadly from outside. Not that he can't do work off the dribble, but he's definitely someone you want to force to dribble into his shot.
- Playing big. Ricky Doyle pitched in a big game in a losing effort in Bloomington, while Mark Donnal pitched in a solid performance himself. With guys like Egwu and Black playing strong basketball, they'll once again need to bring it. Illinois is 4th in defensive rebounding percentage and 11th in offensive rebounding percentage; Doyle et al need to grab a few offensive boards to give Michigan a chance.
- The three-ball. Big surprise, but Michigan will need to hit its fair share from outside. Neither of these teams turn it over much: during Big Ten play, Michigan and Illinois are second- and third-best in the conference in turnover percentage, respectively. Again, whether this really means anything is up for debate, but Illini is 12th in three-point field goal percentage. When Michigan has open looks, it's got to connect.
A lot of things have changed since these two teams met Dec. 30 in Ann Arbor, when the Wolverines climbed back from a double-digit deficit to score an overtime win.
For one, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played one minute in that contest. Walton, LeVert and Kameron Chatman started that game; the first two are out due to injury, and Chatman has been unseated from his starting role, struggling mightily with his shot and his overall comfort level on the floor.
On the other hand, that game marked the beginning of the Dawkins Renaissance, a 20-point performance that yielded "hero of the Illinois game" references in the weeks thereafter. Now, Michigan expects him to produce, which is a lofty step up in expectation from that game on Dec. 30, when his outburst was a pleasant surprise.
Rice had a poor game that day (3-of-11, eight points), and the Wolverines still needed a major comeback to pull out the win, at home. The Illini have been playing solid basketball of late, and while they haven't been blowing teams out, wins are wins.
You never know, but this has the feel of another loss in which Michigan fights as hard as it can, but can't quite find the final bit of playmaking needed to score the win. Never count out Touchdown Tom or a John Beilein Michigan squad, but this one will fall in the loss column. Michigan 55, Illinois 62.