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Michigan at Illinois Preview: Straightforward but daunting

The Wolverines only wanted a chance — now it is time to capitalize.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of Wisconsin, we said the task was “win two out of the final three” for the Michigan Wolverines, and that remains the case. The Badgers were supposed to be the most straightforward of that trio, but it took a desperation heave to even send the game to overtime. Still, the first hurdle was overcome, keeping tournament hopes alive.

Experts say at the very least, winning one of the last two games should put Michigan in the Last Four In conversation with the Big Ten Tournament then coming into play. Winning both would obviously be much preferred, but the Wolverines are definite underdogs in each contest, so even taking one would be a positive.

The Illinois Fighting Illini are a tough matchup for Michigan, especially on the road. The Illini have won five-straight over the maize and blue, and that stretch started even before their public beef during the 2020-21 season. Still, winning at Illinois does seem slightly more attainable than winning at Indiana, so Thursday’s game is as important as any all season for the Wolverines.

Michigan Wolverines (17-12, 11-7) at Illinois Fighting Illini (19-10, 10-8)

Date & Time: Thursday, Mar. 2, 7 p.m.
Location: State Farm Center, Champaign, IL
TV/Streaming: ESPN
Big Ten Standings: UM t-3rd, ILL t-6th
DraftKings Odds: UM +4.5, O/U 144

Blue collar mentality

These two teams’ dislike for each other (making Illinois one of like three? four? non-rivals that has an issue with Michigan) goes back to the Derrick Walton era, but perhaps this current squad can lean into that mentality. “As a point guard, I think that’s a reflection on me. If you call a team white collar, I think the point guard heads the identity of that team” Walton opined back in 2017, and those words echo true still today.

Michigan is not soft or white collar, but grinding it out is exactly how this team is going to win. Dug McDaniel may only be a freshman, but in many ways he still leads the charge for this roster; the young point guard is far from perfect, yet he is finding ways to both contribute and succeed, which sets the tone for the entire roster which is far from perfect itself.

Illinois has a decent defense, including the best two-point defense and block rates in conference play, but the Wolverines recently have found ways to get it done, even without shooting lights out. It means Hunter Dickinson has to get his hands dirty in the paint against bigs like Coleman Hawkins, but a scrappy game could become this team’s strength.

Defense travels

I would still contest that the Michigan defense is turning into a strength, though the effort against Wisconsin was variable at times. The Illini are yet another below-average offense in the conference and this end of the floor is really where the visitors could find a way to steal the much-needed win.

Illinois has a clear profile, ranking first in the Big Ten inside the arc but last from behind it, which is interesting given its above-average three-point attempts. The positive for Michigan is that those two-point numbers fell against Indiana, who also features a top-three center, so hopefully Dickinson (and Tarris Reed) can slow down production in the paint, at least.

The Wolverines did a great job controlling the atmosphere at Rutgers, even with the lopsided start. That will be huge again on Thursday; a few threes falling will be a major boost for the home team and make the environment that much tougher. This game is going to be a dogfight that requires a lot of hustle, and a little luck, but in terms of a must-win affair, Michigan should feel like this one is actually reasonable.