Illini Hope to Right Ship As Michigan Visits

Sandwiched between two of the top teams in the Big 10, the Fighting Illini take on a surging Michigan team at the Assembly Hall Wednesday night. This is a must-win game for the Illini, but the Wolverines see it the same way. Both are seeking an upper division finish in hopes of making the NCAA tournament.

Illinois must recover quickly from the disappointment of a home loss to Purdue last Sunday so it can rise to the challenge Michigan presents Wednesday. Illini coach Bruce Weber respects how well the Wolverines are playing.

"Big game, big week. Every one is here down the stretch. Michigan has played as well as anybody in this stretch, 5 out of 6 after a slow start. They're playing well with a lot of confidence."

Michigan has transformed its style under John Beilein, who believes in spreading the court with three point shooters. He then lets sophomore point guard Darius Morris (6'-4", 190) run the show.

Leading the team with a 15.4 season average, Morris has also dished out 177 assists to go with 81 turnovers, both team highs. If he can't penetrate all the way to the hoop, he finds one of several hot shots stationed behind the arc.

Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. (6'-5", 185) seconds Morris with 12.7 points a game. He is hitting 34% of his threes but has increased that to 41% in the Big 10. Junior Zack Novak ((6'-4", 210) is an undersized but feisty power forward who shoots 40% from the arc, 50% in conference play. Junior Stu Douglass (6'-3", 190), freshman Evan Smotrycz (6'-9", 225) and sophomore Matt Vogrich (6'-4", 190) are all hitting at least 39% from three in the Big 10.

Freshman post man Jordan Morgan (6'-8", 240) provides muscle inside. Averaging 9 point a game for the season, Morgan erupted for 27 in one game and can repeat the performance if teams rely too heavily on defending the arc. Novak and Morgan are the team's top rebounders. Freshmen Jon Horford (6'-9", 220), Blake McLimans (6'-10", 240) and Colton Christian (6'-6", 210) provide size off the bench.

Weber provides more detail on the Michigan style of play.

"They believe in the system. It's a different system. It's not Princeton per se, but it has parts of it. Probably the biggest thing is Morris, how well he's played. When you look at his numbers overall, him and Penn State's Jeff Brooks have to be two who have made real strides this year.

"He's a little like (Steve) Nash. He's getting in there, wheeling and dealing. They get the shooters spread out. They get you all worried (about the shooters), but they still score inside with (Jordan) Morgan, who's 66% in the league on layups and dunks.

"I think Hardaway has the role of Manny Harris. They go to him a lot. He's slowly but surely figured out how to get shots out of the system. He's a good three-point shooter, he's long, he can get to the basket.

"And you've got the tough guy in Novak. They're playing him at four, a little like (D.J.) Byrd at Purdue. He's really a strong two-guard or a small forward. They really buy into the system. It's given them some success here."

The Wolverines are primarily a man-to-man team according to Weber.

"They're better defensively. It's not like Purdue, where they're all over you, physical and aggressive. But they're playing smart and making you earn baskets.

"They'll go to a zone here and there. After a timeout they may try a 1-3-1, they may try a 3-2, they may try a 2-3, just to keep you off guard. But most of the time it's a switching man, a little bit the same style as Northwestern."

Illini senior center Mike Tisdale hopes to utilize his size advantage inside against the smaller Wolverines.

"That's one thing we're gonna work on. We've done it in the past, and it's worked. So we'll have the right game plan I think."

Senior forward Mike Davis wants to see the Illini get everyone involved.

"They're gonna shoot threes. If we can use our height advantage and get it inside to Me, Tiz (Tisdale), Jereme (Richmond) and Meyers (Leonard), we can go inside and out."

Brandon Paul and the other Illini guards have responsibility for slowing Morris while still guarding the arc.

"We've got to treat all their perimeter people like shooters," Paul explains. "The main thing is we've got to contain Morris's dribble. He's a great point guard. I played against him in high school at the LeBron camp. We want to have other people handle the ball. That's definitely an assignment for me and D.J. (Richardson).

As usual, the success of the Illini will depend heavily on senior point guard Demetri McCamey, who's been slumping of late. Weber says McCamey hasn't given up.

"He's played better in practice. One of the tough things this time of year is there isn't as long a practice. He's been focused and put in a good effort. He's been around us talking. It definitely means something to him. I really thought he made a big step at Minnesota but then just couldn't get it going Sunday. Hopefully that will turn here on Wednesday night."

One problem for McCamey against Purdue Sunday was their physical defense and rotation of defenders on him, stopping his patented moves.

"Most definitely," McCamey agrees. "Purdue has four or five scrappy guards, (Kelsey) Barlow especially. It's tough dealing with, but at the same time knowing that next time I'll be prepared."

Of course, Big 10 teams know each other extremely well, and everyone focuses on keeping McCamey from beating them.

"It's tough. You're getting all the attention, and Brandon and Mike D. are scoring all the points. If they don't let Demetri McCamey dominate the game and control the flow, they have a good chance of winning.

"It's up to me as a leader to step up and dominate the game, not just with assists but like I did against Minnesota with defense and making sure all the players are on the right page."

In the meantime, he may have found an explanation for his errant shot of late. His Westchester St. Joseph high school coach Gene Pingatore attended Sunday's game and noticed a flaw in his motion.

"I was talking to Coach Pingatore about my shot. He told me to go back and watch film. We sat down yesterday over the phone. He had a couple tapes, and I had a couple tapes. I'm fading more to my right side.

"Early in the year I was balanced, jumping straight up and hitting my jump shot. This time I'm kind of fading to the right. At Minnesota I was jumping straight up, but against Purdue I was fading to the right again. He said to come into the gym, get extra shots up and focus on jumping straight up."

It's hard to play your best when you are thinking about technique and feeling the pressure of a tough Big 10 season. Somehow, McCamey agrees the Illini need to relax and have fun, like early in the year.

"At the beginning of the year, everybody played well as one. We jelled as a whole team. We didn't care who scored or who got the points, the blocks or the steals. We enjoyed the game, and that's what I think we've got to get back to. I think we brought that at Minnesota and the first half of Purdue. We kind of lost it and had our heads down when they made the run."

Weber said at the beginning of the year this team will go as far as the seniors take it. That is still true today. He is not giving up on them.

"They've got a great opportunity in front of them. Obviously, the seniors have not played as well as I think all of them have hoped. But they still have something there in front of them. They can have a great finish. I believe in them, and I think they're gonna make a push and get going and leave a nice legacy for themselves and for our program.

"I think they want it, I think they care. That's the most important thing. It's not that they don't care. They love the program, they've been dedicated to the program. They just haven't played well, and different ones at different times. I wish we can have a good finish as a team."

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