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January 27, 2013

Game Preview: Michigan at Illinois

The Opponent: Illinois
Record: 15-5 (2-4 Big Ten)
Head Coach: John Groce (First season, 15-5)
RPI: 32
All-time Series: Illinois leads series 85-74
Time and Television: Jan. 27, 6:00 p.m., Big Ten Network

For the second time in three weeks, No. 2 Michigan has a chance to grasp the elusive brass ring that is college basketball's No. 1 ranking when it visits Illinois Jan. 27. The Maize and Blue had a similar opportunity Jan. 13 against arch-rival Ohio State, but fell in 56-53 Columbus.

While reaching the pinnacle of the college hoops world for the first time since 1992 would certainly be an immense step for the program, a road win at Assembly Hall - an arena that has traditionally been a house of horrors for the Wolverines - may just provide a comparable boost of confidence for John Beilein's surging squad.

U-M captured its first victory in Champaign in 17 years with a 72-61 triumph a year ago, ending a 13-game losing streak, but replicating the feat is far from a guarantee despite the slumping Illini's recent struggles.

First-year boss John Groce's bunch is battle-tested, posting a 2-2 record against ranked teams this year, including victories over No. 10 Gonzaga and No. 8 Ohio State, and would become only the sixth team in school history to record three wins over top-10 opponents in a single year, and the first since 2005.

Illinois, which has dropped four of its last six contests and begins an onslaught of five-consecutive games against top-15 ranked opponents with Sunday's contest, is led by senior guard Brandon Paul, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 18.0 points per game.

The 6-4 former Illinois Mr. Basketball has top-tier handles and athleticism, but has the tendency to settle on deep jumpers rather than utilizing his high-end driving ability. Despite averaging 16.3 points per contest in January, he is hitting just 27.8 of his three-point attempts and has failed to record an assist in three of his last four games.

As a team, the Illini also have a tendency to fall in love with the long ball. Groce's team is on pace to attempt 785 three-pointers this season - 174 more than a year ago - and ranks in the middle of the conference with a 33.6 percent conversion percentage.

Still, the Orange and Blue can be a strenuous foe when the shots are falling; they are a perfect 10-0 when shooting better than 45.0 percent from the field and 12-0 when outshooting their opponents. This, however, will be a difficult task against a hot-shooting Michigan squad that enters the contest atop the Big Ten in shooting percentage (50.9) and second in three-point shooting (41.1 percent). Illinois ranks 10th in the conference in allowing opponents to shoot 41.5 percent and 11th in yielding a 34.4 percent three-point rate. Michigan should find open looks, and is a team that has rarely wasted such opportunities thus far.

Senior guard D.J. Richardson continues to solidify his role as a key secondary scorer from the perimeter for the Illini following a career-high 30-point outburst in a 71-51 win over Nebraska Jan. 22. He is averaging 11.8 points per game, and leads the team with 1.6 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. Point guard Tracy Abrams has emerged as a viable floor general in his sophomore campaign, tallying 27.0 minutes, 11.4 points and a team-best 3.2 assists per game.

Defensively, Illinois is susceptible down low, and ranks near the bottom of the conference in rebounding margin (+0.5), and doesn't possess the benefit of a big man averaging more than 7.5 points or 4.6 boards per game, but ranks second in the Big Ten in shot blocking (4.8 per game). UI's ability to shut down a versatile and athletic Michigan offense that can both get to the rim, and to the free throw line, will be predicated on the capabilities of 6-11 sophomore center Nnanna Egwu and 6-9 senior forward Tyler Griffey to patrol the paint while staying out of foul trouble.

U-M is 24-54 all-time in Champaign, and Illinois is 5-37 in its history against teams ranked in the top two AP slots.

Prediction:

As previously mentioned, the iron has been unkind to Michigan in recent years at Assembly Hall, but the 2013 Wolverines are an entirely different animal than the squads that have preceded them in Ann Arbor. Illinois will struggle to keep up with Michigan's perimeter athleticism, and Beilein's squad will overwhelm the Illini in the paint behind strong performances from redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan and growing freshman forward Mitch McGary.

Final Score: Michigan 68, Illinois 59


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