PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Michigan

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with Michigan on Wednesday night.

Illinois (11-5, 1-2) vs.

Michigan (11-5, 1-2)

Date & Time: Jan. 11, 8 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is looking to win their first two Big Ten home games for the first time since 2013-14.
  • The Illini are 19-18 in conference games at home under John Groce.
  • Groce's record is 30-45 overall in the Big Ten.
  • Illinois is 86-81 all-time against Michigan, and they are 55-27 in meetings in Champaign.
  • The Illini held a 13-game winning streak in Champaign against the Wolverines from 1996-2011.
  • Michigan has won four of the last five in Champaign, and Groce is 1-7 against John Beilein during his Illini tenure.
  • The Wolverines have a win against Penn State and losses to Iowa and Maryland in Big Ten play.
  • Beilein is 89-75 in Big Ten play and 33-47 on the road in the conference.
  • Michigan has won at least 10 games in Big Ten play in four of the last five seasons.

Projected Starters

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams had just two points (1-7) with four fouls on Saturday at Indiana. He's shot just 9-of-33 (27.3 percent) from the field through the last four games, including 2-of-18 from three. Abrams also has just three assists with seven turnovers during the four-game stretch.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands heated up in his home state against the Hoosiers with 21 points and five threes. That was the most treys he has hit against a D-1 opponent this season. Coleman-Lands has hit seven of his last 12 attempts from deep after shooting lower than 35 percent from three in his previous 14 games.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill had three fouls by the first media timeout and did not record a field goal in the first half at Indiana. But he bounced back in the second half to post 19 of his 21 points in the second half. Hill is the only Big Ten player to score at least 20 points in every conference game.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black had three points and four rebounds on Saturday in 16 minutes. He had a stretch of five straight games with double figures during nonconference play (17 points per game). Since then, he's had just 3.6 points per game through the last five. The Illini need more.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan has come off the bench the last 10 games, but that seems fit to change on Wednesday. Morgan had 18 points in 22 minutes at Indiana. He only had two rebounds, though. Illinois needs him to rebound and play defense along with his point production.

Bench

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas has fans clamoring for him to get more playing time, and that is to be expected after his outing of six points and four assists in 15 minutes off the bench at Indiana. Freshmen mistakes will come, but he has played with good pace and feel -- while improving at the defensive end as well.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke's value is dictated by whether or not he's making shots. He made five field goals, including two threes, against Ohio State for 12 points. In the other two Big Ten contests, he was 1-of-5 from the field with four rebounds in 32 minutes. And he's been a significant liability defensively.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols was ready when his name was called on Saturday. He had four points, four rebounds and a steal in 11 minutes against the Hoosiers, including a nice baseline jumper. Nichols gives Illinois versatility and physicality. Use him.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had two points and four rebounds against the Hoosiers. But it appears likely that he will fall out of the starting lineup on Wednesday, and his role could decline going forward. He's not the impactful rebounder he was last season, and his lack of defense has hurt the Illini.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had three assists and no turnovers in 10 minutes at Indiana. But while his stat line looks clean, he should take a backseat to Lucas in the immediate future. Lucas has as many buckets (3) in two Big Ten games as Tate does in his last 18 against Big Ten opponents.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams played just four minutes on Saturday and only recorded a turnover. Groce liked his energy in the win against Ohio State, but Williams has struggled with consistency. And Nichols could take away some of his opportunity.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan hit a three and had two rebounds in nine minutes at Indiana. He has gone 3-of-9 from deep against D-1 opponents this season.

Michigan Starters

Derrick Walton Jr. (SR): Walton is averaging 10.7 points, four rebounds and two assists per game in Big Ten play. He is not the most efficient point guard -- shooting 33.3 percent in league play thus far. Walton is capable of hitting the outside shot, but he's streaky enough that you'll live with him taking those looks on most possessions.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (JR): Illini fans may remember Abdur-Rahkman for the 15 points and eight rebounds he put on the Illini as a freshman in a beating at the Big Ten tournament. He is averaging 7.8 points per game this year, but he's only shooting 28.8 percent from deep. The junior guard is coming off his best game in a while with 12 points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists against Maryland on Saturday.

Zak Irvin (SR): Irvin leads the Wolverines with 14 points per game this season, while posting double figures in seven straight games. He can score from all three levels of the court, and his handles and smooth strides make him a must-contain off the dribble. He is Michigan's best facilitator with 4.3 assists per game in Big Ten play. Illinois has to keep in under wraps as much as possible.

D.J. Wilson (R-SO): The 6-foot-10 forward has been on a roll with 17.7 points and seven rebounds per game in Big Ten play. He had 28 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in the conference opener at Iowa. Wilson is long and athletic with a smooth stroke from beyond the arc and in the mid-range. He has played with a ton of confidence, and for good reason. More big things are to come for the Sacramento native after averaging just 2.9 points per game last year.

Moritz Wagner (SO): Wagner has a unique skill set as Michigan's five-man at 6-foot-11, 240 pounds. He is mobile and skilled with some sneaky athleticism when he gets going towards the rim. Wagner is a tough matchup with his mobility and ability to stretch the defense. He is shooting 43.9 percent from deep on the season, and 61.3 percent from the field overall for 11.9 points per game. 

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Trey-ball effect. As usual, Michigan is a team that can hurt you from the outside. They play a four-out system to spread the floor and challenge the defense to contain the drive but not leave shooters. The Wolverines take more than 45 percent of their shot attempts from deep, and they put them in at a 37.1-percent clip. Wagner and Wilson are both shooting over 40 percent from deep. Walton is close to 40 percent. Duncan Robinson is a 40-percent three-point shooter off the bench. And Irvin is more than capable of getting hot, although he hasn't been that recently from long range. The Illini have to do what they can to keep Irvin from breaking out of his recent funk from deep (3-of-16 in the last four games). And they have to guard the line as a whole. Illinois allowed Indiana to splash 13 treys on just 25 attempts, and a handful of them gave a guy like James Blackmon Jr. way too much space. On the flip side, Michigan has gotten burned when it comes to defending the three-ball in Big Ten play. Conference opponents have shot higher than 54 percent from deep against the Wolverines. That's bad. On the season, Michigan is seventh worst in the country in defending the three-point shot. Who does a better job of getting out on shooters? And whose shooters step up to make big shots?

2. Rotation changes. Groce said in his press conference on Tuesday that there will be changes to the lineup and the rotation in this game. Of course, the question is: How does that change the results? Can Lucas and Nichols get into a groove with regular minutes in the rotation? It will be a change for them from playing in a blowout to playing early on in what should be a tight game. Can the freshmen limit mistakes to stay on the floor? Is Groce willing to go small in an effort to defend a mobile five in Wagner, while being able to move around the perimeter? It's obvious that Illinois should do some things different, and Groce has addressed that he will. Expect less Thorne, and if Lucas plays well, less Tate. Nichols could reduce Finke's minutes. Prior to this game, Illinois has run out the same starting five 10 games in a row. Groce hasn't been all that liberal with adjustments. It will be interesting to see what these tweaks bring.

3. Use the dribble-drive. Illinois' offense got in a rhythm in the second half against Indiana once they made a point to attack off the dribble. Hill was exceptional at using his body to get into the lane, finish and get to the free-throw line as well. The Illini had 24 points in the paint in the second half on Saturday. As for the first half? Only six. Michigan is not a good defensive team. Part of their problem with defending the three-ball is that they get beat off the drive first and try to rotate off shooters. Lucas and Abrams should be aggressive from the point guard spot to attack gaps. Hill should do more of the same. And this needs to happen early on. Maybe then we won't see this team come out with a slow start. Use the drive to open things up, draw some contact and get the momentum rolling at that end of the floor. Too often we've seen this team settle for jumpers out of the gate -- a lot of times due to a lack of movement on and off the ball.

Prediction

Another home game after a big loss on the road. And another contest that feels almost must-win. Maryland, who beat you by 26, comes into your house on Saturday. Then you go to Purdue. And then to Ann Arbor. Taking care of business at home is at a premium. Beilein has owned Groce in their Big Ten battles. But this Michigan team isn't as good as some others in the past. They haven't looked particularly great in conference play. But they've had stretches this season when they look dangerous -- hitting 14 threes in a battle at UCLA. Bottom line: This is a very winnable game for the Illini, and as they did against Ohio State, they should grind out a victory.

Illinois 74, Michigan 70


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