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Players to Watch: Michigan vs. Illinois

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Illinois has a lot of talent.

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have only four games remaining on their regular season schedule, and the highest-ranked opponent of the bunch comes to Ann Arbor today. The Illinois Fighting Illini boast the status of being the No. 15 team in the country after a slow start to their regular season saw them unranked.

Illinois has gotten to this point without consistent play from one of their best players from a year ago, Andre Curbelo. The sophomore guard has been dealing with nagging injuries and hasn’t been the guy to take over for Ayo Dosunmu, which many expected him to be.

Instead, they have gotten a lot of help from some of their other guard play like Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier, and Jacob Gradison. Then, there was always going to be the behemoth that is Kofi Cockburn for Illinois on the inside. For the Wolverines to win this game on their home court, they are going to have to do a lot of things right in this one.

Junior center Kofi Cockburn

Let’s start with the big fella who is one of the best interior players in college basketball. At 7-foot, 285 pounds, Cockburn has terrorized the Big Ten this season ranking second in scoring and first in rebounds in a conference that is chock-full of extremely talented big men.

The key to beating Illinois is by slowing him down. Illinois lost three games without the Jamaican product earlier this season but in games he has actually played, the Illini are 16-6. The common denominator in those five losses is Cockburn has been held to under his average in scoring (21.2 points per game). When he scores less than 21 points a game this season, they are 5-6. Adversely, they are undefeated this season when their center has 21 points or more. It’s clear his play dictates how the game transpires.

Last time out against Michigan, Cockburn scored exactly 21 points. Michigan threw a lot of different looks at him, including several double teams, to attempt to force the ball out of his hands. But without Hunter Dickinson on the court due to COVID protocols, he was too much for the Wolverines after some second-half adjustments.

Dickinson has not faired particularly well against Cockburn in his one game against him as a freshman. He was just 1-for-8 in the first matchup as early foul trouble nullified his impact in 76-53 win for the Illini at the Crisler Center. He’ll have to fair much better than that and stay out of foul trouble for Michigan to be successful.

Senior guard Alfonso Plummer

When you’re talking about the best shooters in the Big Ten Conference, Alfonso Plummer’s name has to be at the top of most lists. The transfer guard from Utah has been instrumental to the success of the Illini this season averaging 15.1 points per game. Most importantly, he’s shooting 41.2% from behind the three-point line on more than seven attempts per game.

He’s converted five or more three-pointers in seven games this season, including Thursday’s loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes. As a freshman at Utah, Plummer set the Pac-12 record for most three-pointers in a game with 11 in a late-season contest against Oregon State. He’s been known to shoot the lights out of a building and he can certainly do that against a Michigan team that has struggled with perimeter shooting at times this season.

In their contest earlier this season, Plummer scored 15 points against the Wolverines despite being 1-of-5 from deep. Illinois was terrible from the perimeter in that game going just 6-for-20, but Michigan was even worse at 1-for-10. Michigan is going to have to limit the Fighting Illini’s presence from behind the arc while also producing itself to have a shot in this one.