|Who: No. 12 Michigan (21-7, 13-3 B1G) at Illinois (17-12, 6-10 B1G)|
|Where: Assembly Hall, Champaign, IL|
|When: 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 4th, 2014|
|TV: ESPN | WatchESPN|
|Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 102.9 FM, 92 Sirius, 190 XM|
|More: Preview story, Video, Pick to Click|
Two weeks ago, Michigan’s trip to Illinois looked like one of the easiest road contests on the schedule. The Illini lost eight games in a row, and 10 out of 11, in the middle of Big Ten play and were the only team in the conference to rival Northwestern for offensive inefficiency.
Illinois hasn’t fixed its offense, but it’s learned to defend as well as anyone in the league. The Illini have allowed fewer than 50 points in their last four games and have managed to win three of them, at Minnesota, against Nebraska and at Michigan State.
When games are played seems to matter as much as anything in the Big Ten season this year, and Michigan is facing an Illinois team playing its best basketball. Although it’s the final week of the Big Ten regular season, this will be the first meeting between both teams. Most importantly, the Wolverines will be playing for an outright Big Ten Championship in Champaign.
Illinois has been dominant on the defensive end of the floor. The Illini have held their last four opponents below .87 points per possession. For a proper frame of reference, Michigan’s offense has been held below one point per possession three times this season – at Iowa State (.94 PPP), against Charlotte (.86 PPP) and at Indiana (.95 PPP).
The Illinois defense is predicated on forcing turnovers. Illinois head coach John Groce told reporters on Monday that the Illini shoot to get 30 or more deflections every night.
“We had 42 deflections in the game [at Michigan State] which is the highest amount we’ve had in over 10 games,” Groce said. “We had two players get over five steals each.”
Groce repeated the word ‘active’ at least half a dozen times in his press conference and the Illini have been just that. Illinois forced 46 turnovers in its last 172 defensive possessions – a 26.7% turnover rate.
On the conference season, the Illini are allowing just .99 points per possession. That’s third best in the conference and better than conference contenders Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. But when Illinois isn’t forcing turnovers, its defense can usually be beaten. The Illini rank sixth or worse in the other three factors: sixth in effective field goal percentage defense, eighth in defensive rebounding and sixth in free throw rate allowed.
While the Illinois defense shows a lot of progress, the offense really struggles. The Illini have managed just .95 points per possession in Big Ten play, second worst in the conference. Illinois is the worst shooting team in the Big Ten – 40.9% on twos (12th), 31.2% on threes (10th) for a 42.9% effective field goal percentage.
The Illini do a pretty good job of valuing the basketball, turning it over on just 16.8% of their offensive possessions, but don’t do anything to make up for their poor shooting ability. Illinois attempts just 31 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, second worst in the Big Ten, and only rebounds 29.2% of its misses, seventh best in the conference.
Rayvonte Rice is averaging 13.8 points per game in conference play, down from a gaudy 18.2 points per game in non-conference play. Rice hasn’t been nearly as efficient and is shooting just 36% on twos and 32% on threes in Big Ten games with a 20 to 28 assist to turnover ratio. Rice has a big frame for a guard at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and is very active defensively with 16 steals in the last five games.
Kendrick Nunn has been the big story for the Illini. Nunn, a true freshman guard, was inserted into the starting lineup on February 9th and Illinois is 4-2 since. Nunn is averaging over 12 points per game as a starter.
Nunn has been doing it with his three-point shot. He’s been lights out from behind the arc in the last eight games after a very slow start to the season. Michigan will want to run him off the line and attempt to make him finish at the rim. Other than a baseline jumper, his mid-range pull-up game still appears to be very much a work in progress.
Nnanna Egwu is known mostly for his shot blocking – he’s the fourth best shot blocker in the Big Ten behind Hammons, Eliason and Olaseni – but he also has a very serviceable mid-range jump shot. Egwu shoots a lot of 12 to 15 foot jumpers and can knock them down with consistency. While his jumpshot is serviceable, he’s the second least efficient post player in the conference with at least 70 post-ups, per Synergy.
Tracy Abrams averages 10.9 points per game and the majority of his offense comes off of isolations or ball screens. Abrams has corrected the turnover issues that plagued him in his first two seasons, but he’s have a really tough time shooting the ball: 37.8% on twos and 27% on threes.
Jon Ekey attempts 71% of his field goals from 3-point range and connects at a 35% clip. Ekey lost his starting spot to another true freshman, Malcolm Hill. Hills is averaging 9.2 points per game since being inserted into the starting lineup and is 4-of-4 from long range in the last two games after starting the season 6-of-29.
John Groce essentially pulled the plug on senior forward Joseph Bertrand. Bertrand was averaging 31 minutes and 11 points per game in Big Ten play until he was benched on February 9th. Since then he’s playing just 15 minutes per game and has scored 13 points in six games.
- Don’t turn it over: Illinois’ defense is built to force turnovers and Michigan’s offense is built not to turn the ball over. Something has to give and the winner of that statistical battle will have the advantage. Turnovers not only have the potential to damage Michigan’s offense, they lead to easy baskets for an Illini offense that struggles to score.
- Crash the glass: Illinois wants to play slow and isn’t a great rebounding team on either end. This feels like a great game to unleash Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III and Jon Horford after offensive rebounds and come away with a few extra chances.
- Win the game: Three of Michigan’s six Big Ten road wins have been by a single possession. This game feels destined to be a low scoring, low possession affair to continue that trend. If Michigan can pull off the feat one more time, it will be outright champs.
Ken Pomeroy likes Michigan, giving the Wolverines a 59% chance of claiming the Big Ten crown in Champaign and projecting a 63-61 Michigan victory.