The Michigan Wolverines came out smoking hot from the field in their opening round game with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Center DeShawn Sims scored the first 14 points and was a perfect 8 for 8 from the field in the first half. He ended with 27 points on a variety of midrange shots, layups and threes. Guard Manny Harris added 18 points as the two stars were far too strong for Iowa. Michigan shot 59% for the game.
Michigan now has confidence and momentum going into the Illini game Friday. And since they were able to shut down both physically and emotionally in the second half of their blowout win, they will be well rested for Illinois. In contrast, the Illini bussed to Indianapolis Thursday evening not knowing whether senior guard Chester Frazier's injured hand will permit him to play.
Another problem for Illinois coach Bruce Weber is that he didn't have the benefit of knowing who he would play before Thursday. He said his practices this week included preparations for both Michigan and Iowa.
"I said it was like preparing for a final exam where it's gonna be on the whole semester. And the whole semester is the Big 10 season. You don't know who you are gonna play. We have so many different styles. Michigan can play 1-3-1, they can play 2-3 (zone). They run a certain kind of offense.
"So you kind of have to prepare for everything. You hope the foundation you set back in October and which you have built is a solid foundation and it's still solid now with everything. We're a little better against certain things than others. But I hope we've improved. My biggest thing is, at the end of games we've got to get stops. And you've got to find ways to score."
Weber discussed the problems Michigan poses for the Illini.
"When Michigan played Purdue, they looked as good as anybody. And they have other moments where they're rather up and down. They have two of the best players in the league. And they have a system that's hard to deal with.
"They had a huge win at Minnesota. I went to a high school game, but I watched up to the 16 minute mark in the second half, and they were down 10-12 points. It looked like Minnesota was going to win easily.
"All of a sudden, I get a text saying Michigan won by 3. It really surprised me just because of how the game was going. But it was big for them to get a road win like that against a team that's pretty good at home."
Weber likes Illinois' seeding for the tournament because the prospect of playing three games in three days requires as much rest as possible between games.
"The good part is you get to play the early game on Friday night. I think that late game makes it really difficult to come back on Saturday and perform at a high level. As far as matchups goes, I think every game is gonna be tough. It's a very balanced league. In a tournament, a lot of things can happen. We just have to go in with the right mind set."
Some have been concerned the Illini would be discouraged after two straight losses to end the season. But Weber and the team took some positives from those two games.
"We lost to Michigan State, which is a possible #1 seed. We had a chance to win. On the road against Penn State, against that quality a team, they could have easily been a 2 seed if they beat Iowa. And I thought we played good basketball there.
"If anything from Penn State, we got a shot of adrenalin with how things unfolded, I think a positive energy and then we still ended up with a 2 (seed). And then with a little sense of urgency, a sense of bad taste in the mouth with how the game finished. So I'm hoping we come out with some hungriness in the tournament."
Having a bye to end the regular season gave the Illini some much needed rest prior to the tournament.
"With some time off, hopefully we have some fresh minds and fresh legs. Sunday was just getting some wind back, going up and down. We did it in darkness because we didn't have power here at Ubben. We had to move over to the Arc until it got too dark and we had to cut practice off."
It also helps the Illini to remember how well they fared in last year's tournament. The 10th seed going in, they won three straight before losing in the final.
"I think we went in with a hungriness and something to prove last year. And then we were finally able to win a close game. We won the Penn State game when Chester (Frazier) makes a layup at the end. And then against Purdue we went into overtime for the upset, and then we won a close game with Minnesota. So I think your mindset is the most important thing going in."
Weber has been working on that mindset, reminding his team how much fun a tournament can be.
"And I asked them, 'Wasn't it fun?' It was a blast. You go back to the hotel and see the fans, just to keep playing and the attention you get. 'Man, wouldn't you like that again?' So I hope that adds to the hungriness in getting them ready to play.
"I think everyone's gonna be ready to play. They're all fighting for their lives, whether it's not to have their season end to try to get a tournament bid. It should be a fun, exciting tournament and I think a lot of close games."
Mike Davis spoke for the team when reminded how well Illinois has fared in previous Big 10 Tournaments.
"It gives us a lot of confidence. Coach Weber's always done well in the tournament, and he instills confidence in us. Where he goes, we go."
Of course, he spoke before Frazier went down with his injury. Chester defended Manny Harris well in both previous matchups, and he is the emotional leader of the team. Whether the Illini can rise up and play well should Frazier not be able to play will likely determine their fate.