I wish I could sit here and say that the team adapted to life without Isaiah Livers and learned to play without him on the floor, but that would just be a lie. The Wolverines hit possibly their lowest point in the season this far with Wednesday’s home loss to Penn State, their first home loss within the conference this season. Road struggles have been evident the last month. Gritty play allows the Wolverines to stay in games, but the inability to knock down shots when it matters most combined with lackluster defense at times has contributed most to the downfall of this team.
The big ten is ultra competitive this year. Anyone really can beat anyone. We saw Michigan go to the Bahamas in November and win the tournament among an impressive pool of teams and now, at the end of January, we’ve seen a Michigan team who has lost four of their last five and looks more like a bubble team than ever.
Illinois joins Iowa as the second team to play the back half of their season set against the Wolverines. The last matchup between the two teams was an ugly one, marked by poor shooting and a total inability to rebound the basketball. Credit to the Fighting Illini and Brad Underwood. Coming into this game, he has his team sitting at 6-2 in conference play. Whether Isaiah Livers is going to make his return is unclear, as he remains day-to-day.
What to Watch:
The first and last five: I think how a team starts and finishes a game says a lot. The first five minutes of a game show how prepared a team is. The last five minutes of a game show how much heart and focus a team has, regardless of the score. Being able to set a tone on the road is crucial. Trying to take a crowd out of the game is important while playing on the road and coming out and hitting your first few shots is a great way to do so. Playing from behind is tough, especially for this team where dry spells seem to be so reoccurring. Simultaneously though, we’ve seen a few games slip away from the Wolverines in the second half this year, which is why I think closing games is an area they need to focus on as well.
Limit second-chance points: Illinois is one of the best rebounding teams in the conference, ranking third in the number of total boards they’ve pulled down in Big Ten play. They like to crash the offensive glass, specifically with center Kofi Cockburn. The 7-footer has great size and strength and it was fully on display last time these two teams met. Illinois doesn’t shoot the ball from deep all that well, but they still give themselves an opportunity to score by securing offensive rebounds at a high rate.
Be the aggressor: Too often this season, we have seen Michigan be the second most aggressive team on the court. This applies in various ways, for example, it seems like the opposing team always sets the tone in the paint and that Michigan is constantly out-muscled down low. On the other end though, when team’s turn Zavier Simpson into a jump shooter, Michigan is much more vulnerable. Sure, he has the ability to make that shot, but the Wolverines are much better when he is penetrating defenses.
I was wrong Wednesday when I predicted the Wolverines would be able to defend home court even without Isaiah Livers. Illinois has proved they can compete and win on the road though, and with Michigan’s recent struggles, I think the Fighting Illini pull one out. Illinois 70-66.
Teams: #21 Illinois Fighting Illini (14-5, 6-2) at Michigan Wolverines (11-7, 2-5)
Date: Saturday, January 25, 2020
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Time: 12:00 p.m. EST
Television/Streaming: Fox Sports 1/ Fox Sports Go