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Players to watch for Michigan vs Illinois

It will be a battle of the big men.

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

After a brief pause to the season for the Michigan Wolverines due to COVID-19, they return to the court on Friday and resume Big Ten play against the Illinois Fighting Illini.

There is some bad blood between these two programs. In the 2020-21 season, Michigan claimed the Big Ten Championship after having the best winning percentage of any team in the conference. However, Illinois walked off the court after beating Ohio State and Michigan in the final two weeks of the season. The Fighting Illini proclaimed themselves as Big Ten Champs after their win over Ohio State because they had just beaten Michigan at the Crisler Center and had the most wins in the conference, playing more Big Ten games because of COVID issues.

This will be the first time these two teams have met since then with a lot of familiar faces on both sides. Let’s take a look at two guys who could cause the Wolverines some trouble.

Junior Center Kofi Cockburn

Cockburn may be the most dominant player in the Big Ten right now. He’s posted a double-double in all but two games this season which has propelled him to be a top five player in the country in scoring averaging 22.5 points per game (fourth) and rebounding averaging 12.5 boards a game (third). Cockburn has also been incredibly efficient converting on 62% of his attempts, mostly coming in the paint.

With 20 points or more in each of his last four games, the 7-foot senior is on a tear right now that has helped Illinois push back into the AP Top-25 after a rough start to the season. The battle between him and Hunter Dickinson will be one of the most-watched in the country this week.

In their battle last year, Cockburn got the upper hand with his physicality that cause Dickinson to go just 1-for-8 from the field. Early foul trouble came to the Wolverines’ stud freshman and Illinois ran away with a 76-53 win in Ann Arbor.

However, neither played too much of a factor in the Fighting Illini’s win as Cockburn ended with four fouls himself. The Jamaican product had 12 points and seven rebounds in Illinois’ impressive performance. Dickinson finished with just six points and five boards on the game. He will look to have a better performance as these two behemoths meet for the second time in their careers.

Senior Guard Alfonso Plummer

Illinois lost some key production at the guard position from a year ago as Ayo Dosunmu went on to the NBA and backup point guard Andre Curbelo continues to deal with concussion-related issues.

In steps Utah-transfer Alfonso Plummer, who has been huge in the resurgence of this Illini team. This is mainly because of the surplus of three-pointers the guard has been splashing from deep this year. He’s converting at a 41.9% clip from behind the arc while averaging 7.5 attempts per game. He went on a six-game stretch earlier this year scoring over 20 points a game and has scored in double-digits in his last 10.

Michigan has had issues covering the deep ball this season (see its latest loss to Rutgers for reference) and Plummer will be another guy who can exploit that. He also gives a great option for Cockburn to kick out to if Michigan decides to double or collapse. A big game for Plummer likely means a loss for the Wolverines on Friday.