Who: Illinois Fighting Illini (19-12, 9-9 B1G)
Where: United Center -- Chicago, Ill.
When: Thursday, March 12th, at Noon ET (BTN)
This is it. After a regular season of disappointment, Michigan must make its mark now in the Big Ten Tournament if it wants to participate in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT -- the only two postseason tournaments to which John Beilein will consider invitations. Michigan's only shot to appear in the NCAA Tournament is to win the Big Ten Tournament, but this is a pipe dream because Michigan has only a 0.23-percent chance of securing the Big Ten's auto-bid according to my Log5 analysis that used KenPom's Pythagorean ratings. An invitation to the NIT is more realistic for Michigan, but even that is a long shot. Seven No. 1 seeds in smaller conference tournaments have failed to win their conference's auto-bid, which ended their NCAA Tournament hopes but gave them a free ticket to the NIT. This has been bad news for NIT bubble teams and has pushed Michigan out of the NIT field according to projections by DRatings and The Bracket Matrix. To put themselves in a position to reenter the field, Michigan needs at least two wins in the Big Ten Tournament. Thus, the stakes for Michigan tomorrow are simple: win and earn a shot at the NIT against Wisconsin; or lose, and the season ends.
Illinois is a team that has its entire season riding on tomorrow's result, too. The Illini are an NCAA Tournament bubble team, and, because they lost four of their final six regular-season games, they find themselves on the outside looking in. Illinois must win to work its way into the NCAA Tournament field. A loss means a second straight trip to the NIT.
Offensively, Illinois was only the 10th-most efficient team during the Big Ten season. The Illini averaged only 100.9 points per 100 possessions, which bested only Penn State, Nebraska, and Rutgers' scoring rates. Though Illinois values its possessions and is one of the best teams in the nation at limiting turnovers, the Illini's offense struggled because they could not score inside the arc. They were dead last in the conference in two-point shooting, making only 41.2 percent of their twos, and their so-so three-point shooting and excellent free-throw shooting did not compensate. Illinois doesn't generate many second-chance opportunities, but they may be able to crash the glass against Michigan.
Defensively, Illinois had the same rate during the Big Ten season as its offense, allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions. This was good for fifth in the Big Ten. There isn't one area where the Illini excelled, but their strengths are forcing turnovers and corralling opponent's missed shots -- they were fourth in the Big Ten in both categories. On the other hand, Illinois can be exposed inside where they allowed conference opponents to convert almost half of their two-pointers. Michigan needs a big game from one of its centers similar to the 13 points Ricky Doyle tallied in the first meeting against Illinois and the 12 points and seven boards Max Bielfeldt had in the return trip to Champaign.
Illinois has two stars on its team: Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill. Rice was having a superb senior season before a broken hand and suspension sidelined him for nine Big Ten games. After needing a few games to shake off the rust, Rice has been on fire as of late. In his last four games, he has averaged 21.8 points (60.6 eFG%) and six rebounds per game. Though Rice can finish well at the rim, he inflicts most of his damage at the three-point line (46.2 pct.) and the free-throw line (81.8 pct.). Rice also is a skilled passer, crashes the defensive glass hard, and can be a defensive pest on the perimeter. Simply, Rice is Illinois' best player and can make a significant impact on both ends of the floor.
Hill has emerged as a sophomore and flourished when Illinois needed someone to fill the void left by Rice when he was out. Hill averaged 17.7 points per game in the nine contests that Rice missed and finished the season with per-game averages of 14.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, which earned him an All-Big Ten honorable mention -- though it should have been a spot on the All-Big Ten third team rather than Nebraska chucker Terran Petteway. Though Hill can score from any spot on the floor, his offensive impact has decreased with Rice on the court. Yet he's still capable of going off against Michigan.
Illinois' three other starters -- Ahmad Starks, Kendrick Nunn, and Nnanna Egwu -- have specific roles that complement Rice and Hill. As the point guard, Starks has a decent assist-to-turnover ratio and is an average three-pointer shooter (33.8 pct.). He also can knock down jumpers near the elbows, but forcing him to shoot below the free-throw line is a win for the defense. Nunn is a three-point specialist that spaces the floor for Rice and Hill. He shoots 37.1 percent from downtown and loves the right corner (50 pct.). Nunn also is a solid defender and tends to get his hands on passes for steals. Egwu is all defense and rebounding. Though he'll grab offensive boards, don't expect many put-backs.
Illinois doesn't have much depth after Aaron Cosby was suspended indefinitely -- he's declared that he will transfer after the season. This leaves Jaylon Tate as the Illini's only backup guard. Though Tate is a good passer and can find teammates for open looks, he tends to be sloppy with the ball and has a very high turnover rate. Also, he almost never shoots the ball from the outside and earns the majority of his points at the free-throw line. The two backup big men Illinois will sub in are Leron Black and Austin Colbert. Black is a 6-foot-7 beast on the boards -- he averages 4.3 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game -- that finishes well around the tin. Ask him to step back and shoot mid-range jumpers, though, and his effectiveness wears off. Colbert has seen an uptick in minutes in recent weeks and is a good rebounder, too. He's serviceable at best.
Get the Ball Inside: Michigan loves to fire threes, but it would be in Michigan's best interest to work the ball inside against Illinois. The Illini's two-point defense was the worst in the Big Ten, so there will be many chances to end possessions with layups and dunks. There are a variety of ways Michigan can do this. While it would be nice for Zak Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to continue to attack off the dribble, Michigan will be most successful when it runs the pick and roll. As Dylan Burkhardt of UM Hoops pointed out, Michigan's pick-and-roll offense has improved in the absence of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton because Michigan's bigs are setting better screens and the game's slowed down for Irvin. This also will force Egwu -- a superb shot-blocker -- to vacate the paint to defend the screen, making it easier for Michigan to go inside.
Take Away the Threes: When Illinois sends out its starters, four of them -- Starks, Nunn, Rice, and Hill -- will have three-point percentages above 33 percent. If Michigan gives these players open space on the perimeter, they will bury triples in Michigan's face. On the other hand, none of these players are excellent inside the arc. Rice can finish at the bucket and Hill has a solid mid-range game, but that's about all Illinois can do in two-point territory as Starks and Nunn are ineffective when not shooting threes and Egwu is a complete offensive liability. If Michigan can run Illinois off the three-point line and force the Illini to shoot mid-range jumpers, Illinois' sub-par offense will stumble.
Box Out Egwu and Black: If Michigan can harass Illinois into shooting mid-range jumpers, there's still one thing left Michigan needs to do: rebound the misses. Illinois is not a fantastic offensive-rebounding team, but they do have two players that can be a pain on the offensive glass: Egwu and Black. This could be a problem for a Michigan team that sends in lineups that have no players taller than 6-foot-7 -- a key reason why Michigan was 13th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding. Illinois isn't prone to wasting possessions with turnovers, so it is imperative that Michigan doesn't allow a poor-shooting Illini team to have second chances. Thus, Egwu and Black must be boxed out.
I really don't know what to expect tomorrow. With Rice back, healthy, and on fire, Illinois is a better team than Michigan. The Wolverines don't have a player that can match what Rice does when he's at the top of his game. However, though Michigan has won only two of its last nine games, Michigan has fought valiantly in most of those contests and would have won at least an additional two more if the team hadn't collapsed in the final minutes. Despite facing obstacle after obstacle, this Michigan team hasn't quit, and, as a result, Irvin, Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, and even Kam Chatman have been playing their best basketball in recent weeks. I can't imagine they'll quit now.
If there's anything I know for certain, it's that tomorrow's game will come down to the final possession. The last three meetings between Michigan and Illinois have been decided by one point or in overtime. In fact, the first team Michigan faced in the Big Ten Tournament last season was Illinois, and this crazy sequence capped off Michigan's win:
So make sure to get your heart checked before sitting down to watch tomorrow's game.
But it'll be worth it because Michigan will survive and live to face Wisconsin on Friday.
Michigan 66, Illinois 65