USA Today // Rick Osentowski

PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Michigan

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan on Thursday.

Illinois (18-13, 8-10) vs.

Michigan (20-11, 10-8)

Date & Time: March 8, 11 a.m. CT

Location: Verizon Center (Washington, D.C.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois had its four-game winning streak snapped at Rutgers on Saturday in a 62-59 defeat.
  • The Illini are 4-4 in the Big Ten tournament under John Groce.
  • Groce is 2-8 against Michigan during his tenure at Illinois.
  • Illinois has been eliminated by Michigan in two of the last three conference tournaments.
  • Michigan has won six of its last eight games.
  • The Wolverines won 93-57 in the regular season finale at Nebraska.
  • Michigan and Illinois split the season series, as both teams won at home.
  • The Illini are 87-82 all-time against the Wolverines.
  • Michigan is No. 6 in the country in offensive efficiency.

Probable Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had just three points, one assist and four fouls at Rutgers on Saturday, as he played less than 30 minutes for just the second time in the last seven games. The freshman point guard broke out at home against Michigan in January with five points and eight assists. That was the first game against a D-1 opponent that he saw more than 20 minutes of action. The Illini will count on him big-time on Thursday.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams posted five points, four rebounds and two steals at Rutgers. He went just 1-of-4 from three, but he's hit at least one trey in seven straight games. He's gone 12-of-28 (42.9) from deep during that stretch with a renewed confidence in his shot. But Abrams missed a big layup late against Rutgers, which was reminiscent of 2014 against Michigan at the Big Ten tournament.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill was really good for the bulk of the game on Saturday. He had 16 points, seven assists and two steals in 39 minutes. He had 22 points, four assists and three steals in 38 minutes in an emotional Senior Night victory just days before. But Hill was clearly worn out down the stretch against Rutgers, and he could not manage to make some big shots to win the game.

Leron Black (R-SO): As one team source likes to say, you will be able to tell what kind of Leron Black you're getting on a certain day in his first five or six minutes in the game. Against Michigan State on Wednesday, Black was impactful out of the gate with 13 points in the first half by making every one of his five shots. He provided a huge spark. On Saturday, he struggled by going 0-of-3 with two fouls in his first five minutes on the court.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan rebounded from a slow start at Rutgers to finish with 16 points and eight rebounds on the game. But it took him too long to get going, as he wasn't much of a factor at all in the first half. Still, Morgan has posted double digits in each of the last three games. He only had six points with three turnovers in the last matchup with Michigan.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands gave the Illini nine points and five rebounds off the bench on Saturday, as he hit three of his five three-point attempts. He has rebounded it well in a couple games of late. Other than that, his value has been almost entirely focused on threes. In the last six games, 14 of his 15 made shots have been threes. And he's shot just four free throws with three assists during the stretch. Although, he has also provided seven steals.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke has hit a cold streak with his jumper of late. Once the Big Ten's leader in three-point percentage in conference play at higher than 50 percent, he has made just four of his last 15 from beyond the arc. Finke was 1-of-5 from deep at Rutgers, and 3-of-9 overall for seven points in 24 minutes. He had three assists on the game. But he wasn't nearly effective enough on the defensive glass or in helping the Illini get stops.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): The home game against Michigan was Nichols' coming out party with 13 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Five of those boards came on the offensive glass. But Nichols didn't give the Illini much of anything last time out against Rutgers. He finished with one point, two rebounds and a turnover in only five minutes of action. He went 0-of-2 from the field and he missed a free throw.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played nine minutes in Coleman-Lands' absence against Northwestern on Feb. 21. But outside of that, he hasn't played at all in five of the last six games.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate saw the floor for seven minutes at Iowa, but he had just two turnovers and two fouls during the stretch. He hasn't played in the four games since then.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has sat out the last seven games. He had seven points in 12 minutes at Michigan in the last meeting between the two squads. But for the most part, Thorne just hasn't had it this season.

D.J. Williams (SO): The last time Williams played was for a three-minute stint in Ann Arbor back on Jan. 21. Illinois has played 11 games since then, and Williams hasn't appeared in any of them.

Michigan Starters

Derrick Walton Jr. (SR): Walton led the Wolverines with 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in conference play, as he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. He was ridiculously good at Nebraska on Sunday with 18 points, 16 assists and five steals. The senior point guard is going out with a bang, and his improved three-point shot (42.6 percent in conference play) has been a big difference in his ability on offense.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (JR): Abdur-Rahkman averaged 9.9 points and shot 48.9 percent from three in Big Ten regular season play. His three-point percentage in league play was second best in the Big Ten. He had 15 points against the Illini in the Big Ten tournament as a freshman back in 2015.

Zak Irvin (SR): Irvin's numbers in Big Ten play weren't great by his standards, as he averaged 11.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game -- while only shooting 27.5 percent from deep. He had 15 points in a win over Illinois back in January, though. And he's been more consistently productive with his shot lately. Irvin hit three of his five treys at Nebraska on Sunday.

D.J. Wilson (R-SO): Wilson has big-time potential with his athletic and versatile game at 6-foot-10. He averaged 11.1 points per game and shot 53.7 percent from the field in Big Ten play. His offensive rating through those games was good for fifth in the league. Wilson killed the Illini with 19 points, six offensive boards and five assists in the last meeting.

Moritz Wagner (SO): Wagner is a dangerous threat as a mobile 6-foot-11 with an ability to knock down the three. He shot 40 percent from deep in conference play, which really helps the Wolverines space the floor and stretch out the defense. And Wagner is a guy who can get confident real quick. He tore up Purdue for 24 points, including four threes, in a win over the Boilers on Feb. 25 in Ann Arbor.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Come to guard. The Illini have to defend this team as soon as the Wolverines step off the plane. And that is almost literal with the fact that Michigan is scheduled to land in D.C. just more than three hours until tip-off. Illinois' defense was sluggish early at Rutgers, as they gave up a lightly-contested three on the first possession followed by some buckets in transition. And late in the game when the Illini needed stops, they couldn't get them. And that was against the worst offensive team in the Big Ten. This is the best one. The Wolverines are top-10 in the country in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage. They take care of the ball, they move you around and all five starters can knock down an outside shot or take you off the dribble. They can be lethal, and Illinois must be sound one through five. This isn't the type of team where if you stop one guy, you stop the entire team. Although, Lucas' defense on Walton will be important to track.

2. Need to hit the three. Michigan is going to put threes in the hole. More than 45 percent of their field goal attempts this season have been from beyond the arc, which is the 16th highest rate in the nation. There's a good reason for that. Their starters make threes, and Duncan Robinson comes off the bench shooting higher than 45 percent from deep against Big Ten opponents this season. The Illini need to pace the Wolverines with their own three-point stroke, which has been a big weapon for the offense of late. Illinois has connected on 40.4 percent of its three-point attempts through the last seven games, while hitting an average of nine per contest during a 5-2 stretch. The Illini went 8-of-25 (32 percent) from three the last time out against Rutgers. They'll need to be better than that on Thursday.

3. Malcolm and who else? You know what you're going to get from Hill, who has scored in double figures in every game since West Virginia on Thanksgiving. He scored 16 points at Michigan in the last meeting. He had 15 points against the Wolverines when the teams battled in Champaign. Not a big difference, but the Illini got completely different results. Why? Illinois' supporting cast. When the Illini beat Michigan handily at the State Farm Center, they had five other guys score double-digit points in addition to Hill. How about in Ann Arbor? None. Hill is closing out his career playing at a pretty high level. Even having to take a good amount of shots, Hill has shot 45 percent through the last five games. He's handed out 4.8 assists per game during that stretch, and he has also swiped 10 steals. Expect Hill to continue to produce. But what he gets around him will say a lot about how the Illini will fare.

Prediction

Michigan opened as a 6.5-point favorite, but the line moved down to 4.5 points by Wednesday night after developing news that the Wolverines would not be able to fly into D.C. until Thursday morning. That is significant enough to be a factor, but it will be hard to measure until the game gets underway. What we do know is that the Illini, once again, have everything to play for in this game. And based on their bubble position, they can turn this into their mulligan from a bad showing on Saturday. Although, they still had to win this game.

Maybe this is the type of break the Illini have needed. A strike of luck at the right time for Groce, who has seen so much of the other side of it in recent years. Maybe this is when he beats Beilein in a big spot -- just as he did in the first round of the dance in his final year at Ohio. It'd make for a good story. If not, there's a different story that immediately shifts back to Champaign.

Bottom line: Michigan is the better basketball team. They have more effective balance through their top six. They have more offensive talent. Their frontcourt is scary for Illinois. And they have a really good coach. That's hard to beat.

Michigan 68, Illinois 63


Illini Inquirer Top Stories