Everything has felt terrible this year for the Michigan Wolverines, despite lofty preseason expectations. The return of Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson looked like a clear recipe for success given the elite incoming freshman class, but instead the Wolverines have struggled on the court throughout the season, and have not even been healthy enough to even get on the court over the past week.
Probably not fully healthy, but recovered enough to resume games, the Wolverines now travel to face No. 25 Illinois, who is regarded even higher by Kenpom (12th). This is a tough first game back for a whole host of reasons, certainly including the way the Illini feel about Michigan after last season’s Covid postponements.
The Big Ten runners-up are looking strong once again, which does not inspire much hope for the Wolverines. There have been struggles against all levels of competition this season, and there is a very real chance that this one gets ugly given Michigan's rust, as well as the opposite directions the two teams are trending.
Michigan Wolverines (7-6, 1-2) vs. No. 25 Illinois Fighting Illini (12-3, 5-0)
I mentioned it in the (what became irrelevant) Michigan State preview, but the advanced metrics are interesting for this Michigan team. On one hand, it is reasonable to think that the numbers have not completely adjusted to how this team is actually playing, but on the other, perhaps there is reason to think things are not as terrible as they feel.
Is Michigan really the 26th-best team in the country? Probably not, but the potential is certainly there. One thing analytics attempts to do is to adjust for context (allowing for better predictions), and if Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate progress as expected, for example, then it is not unreasonable to think the Wolverines could go on a run. Both five stars are inconsistent, but both have shown glimpses of incredible potential and efficiency.
That being said, for Illinois it is less about just potential and more about tangible results. This is one of the best teams in the Big Ten with an elite offense (10th) and solid defense (29th), is undefeated in conference play, and carries just three losses, all of which are fairly respectable. With a top-15 three-point percentage and a top-10 two-point defense ranking, this is a huge test for a Michigan squad that has not played in 10 days (and is coming off back-to-back losses before that).
The Wolverines need to get it going on offense. Houstan has an obvious opportunity for improvement and Brooks has not been as effective this season as he has taken on a career-high usage rate (18.8 percent). Really though, the entire unit is the problem because the play just does not seem very cohesive, and bad possessions have made a habit of escalating into big scoring droughts. In a hostile environment like that expected on Friday, there will be no escaping another one of these episodes.
Defensively, Michigan will have its hands quite full. Kofi Cockburn is an elite force, and everything must start with stopping him. However, the issues have often stemmed from poor perimeter defense, leading to either easy drives through the lane or open threes. Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer make up an intimidating backcourt; communicating on defense and keeping them in check (to whatever extent is possible) is vital.