Can Illini Regain Form At Michigan Sunday?

The only thing worse than losing a road game in the Big 10 is having a short turnaround before another road trip. All road venues are tough on visitors, and travel can wear on tired bodies during a long season. When losses mount and pressure to win increases, road games become even more difficult. That is what the Fighting Illini face Sunday in Ann Arbor.

Michigan is a ranked team and unbeaten at home this year. Illinois faces an uphill task trying to topple the Wolverines under any circumstances. To do it after losing a road game 63 hours previously is an even bigger challenge.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber has great respect for Coach John Beilein and the UM program.

"Michigan is a very tough opponent. They're a team a lot of people felt would be one of the favorites. They have some experienced guys.

"When you lose (Darius) Morris, who was so instrumental as far as running their offense and getting the ball to their shooters, everybody looked at that as a difficult person to replace. But I think Trey Burke (5'-11", 180 freshman) has really stepped up and done a great job for them, not only dishing out assists and running their offense, but being a very effective scorer."

Beilein recruits shooters and sets them up for open looks.

"They come at you in a lot of ways. Coach Beilein has done a good job coaching their offensive system. They get their players in position to shoot three-point attempts. They shoot a lot more three-pointers that their opponents. When they're hot from the three, it makes it very difficult to deal with. They were 11 for 24 in the game against Nebraska.

"The last few years, they've gone small ball. That means Novak (Zach, 6'-4", 210 senior) is playing the four. So they spread you and shoot threes. Novak has really shot well in the last stretch. And then they'll rotate Smotrycz (Evan, 6'-9", 235 sophomore) in at the five at times. When he plays the four-five, he's really a long, lanky three-four. He can pick and pop.

"Morgan (Jordan, 6'-8", 250 soph) gives them a physical presence in the paint. He really battles hard. They spread you, so when he gets the ball he's shooting about 65% overall because he gets a lot of easy layups."

Sophomore Tim Hardaway, Jr. (6'-6", 200) is considered their star. He leads the team in scoring, 14.3 points a game compared to Burke's 14.0, but he hasn't always been the player everyone expected, based off his freshman season.

"His shot has been off. I don't know if Morris was so good at drawing defenses to him, that it gave him better looks. Maybe he doesn't get that, I don't know. Maybe it's a sophomore jinx.

"He's still the leading scorer, but his three-point numbers are nowhere near what they have been. Even with USA basketball this summer, he really struggled shooting the ball."

The Illini have had defensive breakdowns the last couple games, and Indiana required a similar defensive strategy. Weber hopes his players do better in Ann Arbor than they did in Bloomington.

"We're going to have to guard the three and hope they don't get into a rhythm. But at the same time, they're very good at getting to the basket. That's where Burke has been so instrumental for them, using the ball screen and getting to the basket. Just making them tougher to defend in a lot of different ways. He's playing with a lot of poise and confidence."

Indiana destroyed the Illini with penetration Thursday night. How can improvements be made in so short a time?

"We have to do a better job of containing the dribble. Brandon (Paul) has played so well defensively, his play-hard numbers have been off the charts. But the last two games, the things he normally brings to the table with his energy have not been there. It's baffling to me. We need him to be one of the better players in the league.

"Obviously, the last couple of games our defense has not been what it needs to be. We've got to go back to the drawing board and figure out some things. If we're going to win, our best players have to play."

A meat-grinder schedule is the last thing the Illini need when they are losing games and confidence. But it is what it is. Can the Illini rise to the occasion, put aside their fears and doubts, and play inspired ball on the road against a talented and confident opponent?

"We're a good team, we've shown it. But you've got to do it consistently. You've got to play hard, you've got to play with a great deal of intensity every game. It's not video games, you can't rewind. You've got to man-up and go play the next game.

"We have an opportunity to go up and play on CBS Saturday against a Michigan team that hasn't lost at home. Hopefully we can have a special game and get everybody clicking at the same time."

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