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No. 14 Illinois Fighting Illini at Michigan Wolverines Preview: No love lost

Illinois has had Michigan’s number in recent years.

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

The Michigan Wolverines finally stopped their five-game losing streak with a win on Monday afternoon over Ohio State. In appropriate fashion, the home team took a nine-point lead into half, and extended it to 12 points, before giving up a 16-0 run to fall behind. Yet somehow, this time the Wolverines did not settle for yet another close loss following a second-half collapse and fought back for their first win in nearly a month.

It was important to get back in the win column with a nasty pair of games on deck. First is a visit from the Illinois Fighting Illini, a team that has been a thorn in Michigan’s side in the Juwan Howard era. Then, the Wolverines head to West Lafayette on Tuesday to take on the most intimidating team in the Big Ten, Purdue. Neither of these games are expected to bring a win, but it feels a lot different to head into them off a victory compared to six-straight losses.

Illinois is a top-15 side in both the polls and Kenpom and is clearly one of the conference’s best teams. However, the Illini are just 3-2 in Big Ten play and are coming off a nine-point home loss to Maryland on Sunday, making it two defeats in the past three games. Still, the visitors will be heavy favorites in this one. Michigan has not beat Illinois in five years, but maybe this squad can rally together to stick it to this vocal opponent.

No. 14 Illinois Fighting Illini (12-4, 3-2) at Michigan Wolverines (7-10, 2-4)

Date & Time: Thursday, Jan. 18, 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
TV/Streaming: FS1

Kenpom sees the Illini as a top-10 offense that does a lot of things right, especially interiorly, with good two-point shooting and offensive rebound numbers. When considering only Big Ten games, though, that two-point rate falls to one of the conference’s worst, while three-point shooting actually rises to 39.4 percent. This is still a good offense, and a solid defense, that is likely to cause a lot of problems for a Michigan team that is still just not in sync defensively, though has played better over the past two games.

The absence of former Michigan transfer target Terrence Shannon has made a big impact, and it is probably not a coincidence the defense has taken a step back without him. The Illini still have three other scorers averaging double-digits, but it definitely is more of a team effort as opposed to relying on Shannon to be one of the nation’s best players. Perhaps that is fitting against the Wolverines group that is trying to be greater than the sum of its parts as well.

Throw out the numbers

Honestly, if Michigan is to pull off the upset on Thursday, I do not think it comes down to any sort of statistical advantage. This has been a season of frustration, and even the win over Ohio State was nearly the latest example of its tragic flaw showing up yet again. But the Wolverines held on, and maybe it takes some vibes and heart to break the losing streak against the team that has been quite prominently leading the charge against them since 2020.

If there was a stat to target, it would be productivity behind the arc. The Illini are just average in this regard and the Wolverines were 12-for-23 on Monday with all non-Tarris Reed starters hitting at least one shot from deep. Michigan will need to keep the ball moving and take advantage when it gets a good look; not having a defender like Shannon on the floor is certainly a benefit and perhaps the way the home team can make it competitive.