Game Preview: Illinois at Michigan

The Opponent: Illinois
Record: 20-8 (7-7)
Head Coach: John Groce (First season, 20-8)
RPI: 33
All-time Series: Illinois leads the series 85-75
After a shaky performance in a 79-71 home victory over Big Ten cellar dweller Penn State Feb. 17, U-M looks to keep its Big Ten title hopes alive when it returns to action at the Crisler Center today against a hungry Illinois squad posturing for NCAA Tournament seeding.
The Wolverines' seven days of rest following a brutal five-game, fifteen-day gauntlet, in which they played four of the top five teams in the conference, is their longest since late Dec., and they look to return to the hardwood rejuvenated after showing signs of dead legs against the Nittany Lions.
But UI, which Michigan topped 74-60 in Champaign Jan. 27, is a hot team that is surging at just the right time. After an abysmal 2-7 start in conference play, John Groce's squad has found its form as of late, and is riding a five-game winning streak into Ann Arbor, which includes a victory over top-ranked Indiana.
While U-M's defense has been called into question in recent weeks - the Maize and Blue have yielded 73.2 points per game over its past five matchups - the ability of the Illini to stifle opposing offenses has been the catalyst to their strong Feb. push.
Illinois has yielded just 56.8 points per contest on 39.0 percent shooting and has forced an average of 14.8 turnovers over its last five games, and is outscoring its opponents by an average of eight points per tilt this month.
While senior guard Brandon Paul (16.8 points per game) remains a primary scoring option, senior guard D.J. Richardson has stepped up his output during the Orange and Blue's current tear, averaging 18.0 points per game in his last five and has notched double-figure point totals in his last nine. Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams has been a true facilitator, averaging 4.6 assists against only 1.6 turnovers during the same time frame.
UI has struggled on the boards, however, ranking 10th in the conference with a -0.5 rebounding margin, and 6-11 sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu leads the team with just 4.5 rebounds per game. Still, the Wolverines were outrebounded by Illinois 34-33 the last time the two teams met, and ankle injuries limiting redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan and redshirt freshman forward Max Bielfeldt should further hinder the ability of John Beilein's squad to control the glass.
Overall, the pressure is on Michigan in this one. Barring an unlikely late-season collapse, the Illini are almost assured a spot in the field of 64. Conversely, today's contest, as well as a road tilt with Penn State Feb. 27, are critical, winnable games that U-M must have to remain in the conference title race with mega matchups against Big Ten titans Michigan State (March 3) and Indiana (March 10) on the horizon.
From the Other Sideline:
Shannon Ryan - The Chicago Tribune: "Whether it's a surprising upset of No. 1 Indiana or a confounding down-to-the-wire victory against Big Ten bottom-feeder Penn State, Illinois has used the shortest month of the year to prove the most.
"A January funk has turned into a February groove for the Illini ...
"The Wolverines have lost three of their last five. That hardly prompts anyone to scratch them as a potential Big Ten champion, especially considering all of the losses were on the road and two of them were against top-10 opponents.
"But when Michigan beat Illinois 74-60 in Champaign on Jan. 27, who would have thought less than a month later in the rematch that Illinois would be the hot team?"
By the Numbers:
4: U-M has won four consecutive games against UI.
10: The number of games Illinois has played against AP Top 25 teams, the most of any team in the nation. UI is 5-5 in those contests.
13: Sophomore point guard Trey Burke needs just 13 points to become the 47th player in program history to record 1,000 career points.
14-1 The Illini are 14-1 when outshooting opponents this season.
15: Michigan has won 15-consecutive home games, and is now 30-1 at Crisler Center over the past two seasons.
The week of refuge from the rigors of Big Ten competition should afford the Maize and Blue much needed rest from the bumps and bruises of a long and arduous season, as well as the opportunity to work on the little things that have failed John Beilein's squad over the past three weeks.
Illinois is playing at a high level right now, but freshman wings Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III will both shine at the same time for the first time in a long time, and sophomore superstar point guard Trey Burke will take over the game late.
The streaking Illini will provide a formidable matchup and keep it close behind another strong outing from Richardson, but U-M pulls away late in a must-win game.
Score: Michigan 67, Illinois 59