If there's any doubt in the NCAA Tournament Committee's minds that Michigan hasn't done enough to punch their ticket, there is an opportunity to turn some heads as the Wolverines head to Washington D.C. to take on Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.
The Illini, who U-M is very familiar with, has been on a similar upward swing to close the season like the Wolverines have. Head coach John Beilein recognizes the improved play and similarities between the two teams heading into Thursday's contest.
"Illinois, as you've been following, has been playing as good of basketball as we've been playing," Beilein said. "In the last five games compared to their first 13, they're stealing the ball two or three more times a game, they're making three more threes a game, their defensive field goal percentage has gone way down so they're really playing good basketball when they need to. They almost finished the season with five [wins] in a row. Freeman, who is a low-percentage shooter, I would've given him that shot too, doesn't make that they would've with five in a row. They're really playing well and we are too, it's going to be a great game and it's hard to believe that these two teams are a couple games out of first place and a couple games out from the play-in game. The Big Ten has been so difficult this year."
This will be the third time this season that U-M and Illinois will play each other. Fortunately for both programs, despite splitting the games, they have not played each other since the two games earlier in Big Ten play. For Beilein, he isn't particularly thrilled to play Illinois but realizes there are some advantages to facing a familiar foe.
Advantages he hopes pays dividends for his team this upcoming weekend.
"My preference would be that they had beat us twice but maybe we wouldn't be playing this game," Beilein said. "The next one would be that we would at least split with them. Obviously, if you beat a team two times that's really hard because you just don't have that same type of mindset. The fact that we've played them twice, we know each other a little better, we should be able to, and this goes both ways, we both should know what we're doing. We have evolved, they have evolved, if you watch our last five games and their last five games there's similarities there but I think both teams have evolved since we played each other twice during the first two weeks of the season. Whoever makes shots and defends the best is going to win."