The Michigan Wolverines took a step in the right direction this week with a win over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Now they are 8-4 in their last 12 games after starting the season 7-7. That run has come since a COVID outbreak in Ann Arbor postponed two games in early January where the Wolverines went 11 days without a game and a full calendar month without a win.
The final loss in those early-season struggles came at the hands of this Fighting Illini team. Michigan played without its best player, Hunter Dickinson, leading to a big night for Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn struggled early but got his groove with the rest of his team as the Illini outscored the Wolverines 42-31 in the second half. The Fighting Illini center finished with 21 boards and 10 rebounds, right around his season average.
Michigan was just 1-of-10 from deep, shot 57.1% from the free-throw line and only 22-for-60 (36.7%) from the field in the loss. It was a struggling team, dealing with COVID and facing an Illinois squad that wasn’t losing this game at home.
After all of the hoopla of “who the real Big Ten Champs” were a season ago, there is quite a bit of juice remaining in this rivalry. A clash of two of the premier big men in the conference with Dickinson and Cockburn certainly adds fire to the flames.
Illinois has all but sealed its spot in the NCAA Tournament, coming into Ann Arbor as the No. 15 team in the country. A Big Ten Championship is not out of the hopes yet, as the Illini are just a game behind Wisconsin and Purdue with a handful of games to go.
Michigan, too, could very much use a win on its home court Sunday. The Wolverines are in a lot of brackets at this point, and deservedly so, but another victory over a top opponent would continue to push the momentum they have been building.
Phil Martelli continues to be the interim head coach and everyone seems to be loving the former St. Joe’s coach stepping back into the lead role. Unlike the game against Rutgers, Martelli will have every player at his disposal as Moussa Diabate and Terrance Williams return after serving one-game suspensions.
Michigan Wolverines (15-11, 9-7) vs. No. 15 Illinois Fighting Illini (19-8, 12-5)
Date & Time: Sunday, February 27 at 2 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Big Ten Standings: MICH t-7th, ILL 3rd
This is the kind of statement win that could push the Wolverines out of the bubble. Illinois has lost three of its last five to some pretty strong conference opponents. The Illini slipped up twice on the road with double-digit losses to both Rutgers and Purdue in the last month. Ohio State also came to town this week and won 86-83.
With Illinois’ recent struggles, this could be the Wolverines’ best shot at getting another high-caliber Quad 1 win before the end of the season. Their No. 14 NET Ranking is the highest of the Wolverines’ remaining opponents. At No. 32 overall for Michigan, it could get to Quad 1 status with a victory.
Matchup-wise, Illinois does a lot of things really well that Michigan has struggled with this season. The main example of that is three-point shooting. No team in the Big Ten attempts more three-pointers than the Fighting Illini. It has made or broke their team throughout the season.
Alfonso Plummer may be the most important transfer player in the conference. He’s averaging better numbers in pretty much every statistical category since transferring from Utah. Shooting 41.2% from deep on 7.4 attempts per game has made him a deadly sharpshooter. The senior guard has hit five or more threes in seven games this season, including a season-high eight earlier this week in the loss to Ohio State. Limiting his shots from behind the arc will be huge for Michigan.
Going shot-for-shot from deep isn’t a great idea for Michigan in this one because Illinois has several shooters. Jacob Grandison is also shooting more than 40%, and Trent Frazier has also been known to heat up from beyond the arc. Caleb Houstan may be turned to hit some shots like he did against Rutgers to help alleviate some of that pressure from the three-point line.
You cannot deny the battle of the interior that may decide this game. Dickinson is single-handedly the most important player for Michigan. The offense runs through him, and he is going to be facing his toughest matchup of the season with Cockburn. The veteran center from Jamaica has gotten the better of Dickinson in their single matchup in their careers as Dickinson struggled with the 7-foot, 285-pound frame of Cockburn when he was a freshman. Dickinson will have to hold his own against one of the best players in the country for Michigan to be successful.