Illini Travel To Michigan Needing A Win

The Fighting Illini basketball team faces an important road test Tuesday at Michigan. This is the first and only meeting between the two teams in the regular season, and the Illini need wins to confirm their place in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines have been enigmatic this year, but they have firepower that can give the Illini trouble.

After perhaps only defending national champion North Carolina, Michigan has an argument of growing merit in a debate over the most disappointing teams in college basketball this season.

The Wolverines are in danger of missing out on the postseason altogether one year after making the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With four games to play, they sit an uncomfortable 13-13 with a win over Division 2 Northern Michigan and games remaining against three of the top teams in the Big Ten in Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Michigan seemed to find its footing with back-to-back road wins over Minnesota and Iowa, but an inexplicable home loss to last-place Penn State jolted the Wolverines back to reality. So now the question is, will the Illini be facing the good team or the bad team?

Illinois coach Bruce Weber would like to know as well. He has no idea why they have been inconsistent.

"It's hard to say. On any given night, any coach in the league would tell you they're a dangerous team. They have two of the better players in (DeShawn) Sims and (Manny) Harris. The system is a well-thought-out system. It has been successful and puts you in binds.

"When they make their threes, they have a chance to win games. It's gonna be a key how we defend the threes, get to the shooters and not let them get into a rhythm. And not let Harris and Sims have games like they did last week where they scored 47 or more points. We've got to see if we can limit those two guys and not let the other guys get in a rhythm."

It is possible that uncertainty at point guard has contributed to UM's problem. Sophomore Laval Lucas-Perry (6'-3", 185) and freshman Darius Morris (6'-4", 180) share time there, but neither has taken over the position. The Wolverines love the three ball, but their shooting percentages are low. They win when they are hitting a high percentage of their arc shots.

Seniors Harris (6'-5", 185) and Sims (6'-8", 235) are a potent 2-man attack. Harris averages a team high 18.5 points a game. He also pulls down 6.2 rebounds and averages more than 4 assists per outing. Sims scores at a 17.5 rate and leads the team with 7.6 boards. There is a big dropoff after that.

Sophomores Zach Novak (6'-5", 210) and Stu Douglass (6'-3", 185) start. Novak scores at a 7.2 clip and Douglass 6.7. Both are excellent three-point shooters, but neither has shot a high percentage this year. Zach Gibson (6'-10", 220) gave the Illini fits last year, but he is scoring only 3.5 points and pulling down 2 rebounds a game as a senior. Junior Anthony Wright (6'-6", 235) and freshman Matt Vogrich (6'-4", 180) both see time but haven't distinguished themselves.

The Illini know they will face some 1-3-1 zone because they didn't handle it well against Ohio State. Weber discussed the UM defensive strategy.

"I think they'll play it some. The last three games, they've played it a handful of possessions total. Maybe after a timeout or something. But at the same time, we didn't fare very well against Ohio State. So it was the one thing we really focused on (in practice).

"We've still got to deal with their switching defense. They play so small they switch everything. We've got to make sure we get good ball movement, take advantage of opportunities when we get some mismatches. The other thing is we've got to get it inside. If we can crash the boards, I think that was a big difference-maker for Penn State."

Illini juniors Mike Tisdale, Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Bill Cole and Jeff Jordan have never won in Crisler Arena. Weber offers a possible explanation.

"Coach (John) Beilein has a good system. Sometimes it's matchups. They play small, so that's a factor with us. Last year we had a good first half. Second half, we could just never stop them. The games have been close, but they've been able to make plays."

Davis agrees the old facility seems cold and dark, not friendly for visitors.

"Yeah it does. The fans are right on the floor and are pretty loud. They usually win at home."

Still, the biggest problem for the Illini is Harris and Sims.

"Definitely," Davis agrees. "You tend to watch Manny and DeShawn a little too much and not just play. But Manny is capable of going for 40 any night, and DeShawn is capable of going for 25 and 13 every night. Those two are great players. We've got to contain those guys. If we do that, we have a good shot at winning."

Tisdale has a difficult assignment guarding Sims as he is mobile and can shoot the three according to Weber.

"It's a challenge for him. Last year, Sims hit some shots so we went small the rest of the game. They still won. So I told the coaches on the plane coming home we can't give in. We've got to take advantage of our height. We should make sure we hold them accountable when they do play small.

"We made that commitment and were fortunate to get a couple victories against them. I hope Mike Tisdale takes it as a challenge and gets up on him, close out and see if we can bring some help from the weakside when he needs it."

Davis, rejuvenated in his last outing, knows the counter to Michigan's small ball is working the ball inside.

"We need to take advantage of our size, get it inside and get some easy buckets."

Cole understands the importance of securing a victory.

"This game is probably bigger than the last 2-3 as it will have more weight on our post-season chances. We've got to be ready for Michigan. They're gonna do a lot of different things we haven't seen. They'll switch up man and zone, and they throw a lot of talent at us."

McCamey is playing the best ball of his life right now, and his confidence and court awareness is a big factor in the team's recent success. He believes the Illini can win if they continue their quality play.

"We feel pretty good. I feel if we play like we did Saturday, and correct rebounding margin, we'll be fine. Just play 110%, play Illini basketball and we'll be okay."

Even though the Illini are coming off a loss at Purdue, their confidence is high. Davis says his team appreciated Weber's response to the loss and feels it will help the team in Ann Arbor.

"Yeah, after the game Coach wasn't mad at all. He was happy with our performance. He thought we played our butts off, we fought, we just never gave up. When Coach says that after a loss, especially to Purdue, it helps our confidence knowing Coach has confidence in us. We've got another road game. If we play hard, we have a good chance to win."

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