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Game Preview: Michigan hosts Illinois in top-four showdown with title implications

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The Wolverines finally get their game against the Illini.

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NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (18-1, 13-1 Big Ten) have been waiting for a shot at No. 4 Illinois (18-6, 14-4 Big Ten) and finally get it on Tuesday night at Crisler Center with Big Ten title implications on the line. A victory in any of the next three games would make Michigan the mathematical conference title win based on winning percentage. That might rub Illinois the wrong way, but that is the way the cookie is crumbling this year.

This has the potential to be the marquee matchup of the year on paper in what has analytically-speaking been one of the best Big Ten conferences in the history of the sport. And there is a little bit of bad blood here between the two programs in recent memory.

Michigan had to stop its season dead in its tracks on Jan. 23 due to a COVID-related shutdown within the athletic department. The Illinois game was originally scheduled for Feb. 11 but was postponed after Michigan had only been on the practice floor for a few days following three weeks of complete inactivity. The Wolverines would return to game action on Feb. 14 and grab a victory over Wisconsin on the road.

That seemingly rubbed Illinois and head coach Brad Underwood the wrong way with the implication that Michigan may have ducked them as the first test out of the shutdown. Michigan will only be required to play 17 conference games, while Illinois is playing the full 20.

“We’re going to honor the (postponed games) because we’re a member of this league,” Underwood said over the weekend. “We’re not gonna be the teams that pick and choose what we play for whatever. We’re going to show up. I think it’s about character and this team has a ton of it.”

Michigan and the Big Ten moved the schedule around so that they could get a game with Illinois in and still pull off a showdown with Iowa and a pair of rivalry games with Michigan State. Had they rescheduled the three other games, the Wolverines would have played Northwestern, Penn State and Indiana a second time.

Which, let’s be honest, probably only would have widened Michigan’s lead at the top of the conference.

Underwood and his team have a chance to come out and raise hell with a victory in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night and they certainly have the talent to do it. The question remains if star guard Ayo Dosumnmu will play after breaking his nose last week at Michigan State. That has not affected the Illini a ton, as they are currently riding a two-game winning streak coming into this contest.

Dosunmu should be the Big Ten Player of the Year, so the idea that he could be out for this game is both a relief and a bummer. Having the two best teams in the conference matchup at full strength would be a ton of fun to watch, but nobody is going to apologize at Michigan if they can get the job done anyways.

Freshman guard Andre Curbelo has stepped in and done a terrific job in Dosunmu’s absence and has the look of a player that could be a thorn in the side of the Big Ten for a few seasons. That feels like the assignment that Eli Brooks will draw in this game and is a matchup that comes down to how a senior defensive stopper performs against a talented freshman. It might not be all that more difficult to analyze than that.

The heavyweight prizefight that everyone will be tuning in for is the battle of the centers in Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson. This is the “Godzilla vs. Kong” matchup of the week in the Big Ten between a pair of players that do most of their damage in the paint. Given how Dickinson was able to perform against Luka Garza and Trace Jackson-Davis in the last few games, one likes his chances of coming out on top here. Cockburn might be the most physical challenge he has seen this season, though.

This might wind up being a game that simply comes down to Michigan’s depth and talent. They have a leg up on Illinois here and might have that advantage against just about every other team in college basketball. There is plenty of potential for matchups that cancel each other out, which makes it even more critical for Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers to be the stars that they are and make all the difference in the game. There are very few teams in the country that can have an answer for Wagner when he is as locked in as he has been in three of the last four games.

This game should be a ton of fun regardless of whether or not Dosunmu plays. Michigan has internalized a “one game at a time” mentality and has done a tremendous job of staying present and in the moment. That type of mindfulness and preparation has them on the precipice of clinching a Big Ten regular-season title with games still left to be played this year.