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Behind Enemy Lines: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Michigan Wolverines

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Drew Hallett from Maize n Brew joins us to preview Illinois' Big Ten opener against Michigan.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Good-ish news! Non-conference season is over and the Illini aren't completely dead yet. The bad news, of course, is that Big Ten season begins Wednesday night, and the team is set to face off against one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Now let's give a warm welcome to Maize n Brew's Drew Hallett as he joins us to preview Illinois' game against the Michigan Wolverines.

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1. John Beilein's Wolverines (10-3) appear to be back after a tough 2014-15 campaign, but they've had their struggles in big games so far (1-3 against current KenPom Top-50 teams). What were the expectations like heading into the season? And how do you see Michigan stacking up in the Big Ten?

Michigan went 16-16 and missed the postseason in 2014-15, but this season's expectations were the same as last season: a top-four Big Ten finish and a potential Sweet 16 appearance. The belief was that last season was derailed by injuries because two of U-M's best players, Caris LeVert (fractured foot) and Derrick Walton (sprained toe), missed large chunks of the season. But this season was going to be a do-over for Michigan because all but Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana, returned and would be healthy. Further, the Wolverines added a few pieces, too: two skilled, lanky big men in D.J. Wilson (redshirted in 2014-15) and Moritz Wagner and a D-III transfer and sharpshooter in Duncan Robinson. It was clear that Michigan would have lots of talent at guard and on the wing. The biggest questions were how well could Michigan defend and what production could it get from its centers. Those answers would determine the type of season Michigan would have.

So far, the answers to those questions haven't been ones that Michigan fans hoped to see. Not only has Michigan had trouble stopping skilled post players and keeping the better teams it's faced off the offensive glass, Michigan's perimeter defense hasn't been much better. Rotations are slow, closeouts provide open lanes for penetration, and the pick-and-roll defense has been shredded. There are many issues that Michigan needs to fix, and, until U-M can do that, expectations for the season should be downshifted, which is why the Wolverines are a bubble team at the moment. However, because much of the Big Ten has not lived up to their expectations as well, Michigan's standing in the conference is about the same as it was before the season. Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland seem to be the clear top three with Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan fighting for the #4, #5, and #6 spots. Therefore, a top-four Big Ten finish still is in reach for the Wolverines.

2. A year ago, the injury-plagued Wolverines were relatively successful at times (read: successful against Illinois) thanks to a surprisingly talented group of freshmen. How is that current class of sophomores adjusting to their ‘new' roles now that Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are back in the fold?

Many of those sophomores have taken a backseat. Guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman would have been squeezed out of the rotation until Spike Albrecht retired mid-season due to bad hips. Abdur-Rahkman now plays limited minutes as Derrick Walton's backup. Wing Aubrey Dawkins started the first nine games, but, because his defense had been lacking, John Beilein made the switch to Duncan Robinson, who also struggles on defense but is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Given how well Robinson has performed (15.0 PPG and 62.1 3P% in his last eight games), it seems unlikely Dawkins will get his job back. Instead, he's settled into the role as Michigan's sixth man.

The two most important sophomores are centers Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal because they haven't taken a backseat to anyone. Those two and freshman Moritz Wagner are sharing the minutes at the 5, and Michigan needs one of them to step up. The Wolverines don't need a center that dominates on the block offensively. They just need someone that can finish layups, set hard screens, defend on the block, and box out. Right now, Doyle's been the starter at center, but by no means has he solidified his spot. Donnal or Wagner could steal it from him.

Beilein said recently "people have accepted their roles," so it seems these sophomores know what they must do to make the team better.

3. Speaking of LeVert, the one-time John Groce commit has established himself as one of the best players in college basketball over the course of his career. For fans that haven't really seen him play since 2014, what are the most improved aspects of his game? Also, how high do you think his ceiling is in terms of 2016 NBA Draft status?

Caris LeVert has developed into an all-around leader this season. LeVert floundered as the go-to guy at times with Nik Stauskas no longer around last season. Some of that was because his teammates were dropping like flies around him. Some of that was because he forced it too much on the offensive end, which led to turnovers and poor pull-up jumpers. This season, though, except for one awful showing against SMU, LeVert has been sensational. Not only has he averaged 17.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, and 1.2 SPG, his efficiency has soared through the roof from 101.1 to 130.3 despite handling more than a quarter of Michigan's possessions. Where LeVert has improved the most is his shot selection, his shooting off the dribble, his willingness to get to the rim and draw more shooting fouls, and his ability to create looks for his teammates. Though, it should be noted that some of this improvement can be attributed to having a healthy Derrick Walton and a lights-out shooter in Duncan Robinson on the floor with him. Nonetheless, LeVert isn't forcing things nearly as much as he used to. Everything he gets seems to come in the flow of the offense. And, with this on display, he's looking to be a mid-first-round pick come June.

4. Michigan is a great offensive team; so much so, that's it's almost unfair to highlight a specific area without mentioning the entire picture (18th in Adj. Efficiency, 4th in eFG%, 4th in TO%, 11th in 3P%). That's, uh, not the best news for an Illinois team that's near the bottom in just about every defensive category. But what areas of the U-M attack should the Illini attempt to take away in order to give themselves a chance? Are there any relative weaknesses that they can take advantage of?

For starters, Illinois must play man defense because Michigan has eviscerated all zone defenses opponents have tried. Not only are Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, and Zak Irvin threats from the three-point line, even if Irvin is amid a season-long slump, they're skilled dribblers and passers that can get the ball into the middle of the zone and beat it from there. Plus, Duncan Robinson is the ultimate zone beater. If he's left open on the perimeter, it'll be more of surprise if he misses than if he swishes it. Thus, zone defense is a death wish against Michigan.

In that man defense, the key to stopping Michigan is to bother its shooters on the perimeter while not allowing dribble penetration. Though Derrick Walton was absent with an injury, SMU executed this to perfection. Michigan was unable to find open looks from behind the arc or drive past the first line of defense into paint. Accordingly, Michigan's offense looked completely discombobulated and was forced to jack up bad jumpers at the end of the shot clock. And the Wolverines finished with 0.88 PPP, which is its season-low. So Illinois needs to have quick, lengthy perimeter defenders that perform excellent closeouts. If the Illini do that, Michigan's offense could sputter down the stretch.

Also, another strategy is to attack LeVert on the other end and get him into foul trouble. John Beilein has a strict auto-bench policy where he'll bench any Wolverine with two first-half fouls for the remainder of the period. It's a policy that has cost Michigan games in previous seasons and may have earlier this year against UConn. In that game, which Michigan lost by 14, LeVert sat on the bench with two fouls for the final eight minutes. In that stretch, the Huskies outscored Michigan by 15. Yeah. So, if the Fighting Illini can get LeVert into foul trouble in the first half, Beilein likely will sit him until halftime. This will take away Michigan's best playmaker and could cause the offense to suffer.

5. According to KenPom, (No. 34) Michigan is only a 3-point favorite over (No. 114) Illinois. That's surprisingly close given what we've seen out of these two teams thus far. What's your prediction for the game?

KenPom projects a close game because it'll be played at the State Farm Center. Plus, no Big Ten road game is easy. However, I think this matchup greatly favors Michigan. The Wolverines thrive on three-point shooting and prefer to avoid teams that can bully their way inside and crash the glass. Well, not only does Illinois have one of the worst three-point defenses in the country (312th in 3PA% and 315th in 3P%), Illinois will not have its two best interior players and rebounders in Mike Thorne, Jr. and Leron Black. Instead, Illinois will rely on Michael Finke, who's a very efficient shooter but inflicts most of his damage on the outside. As a result, Illinois is 347th out of 351 in percentage of shots taken at the rim. I can't discount the possibilities that Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, who are two great players, have big games or the Wolverines could have a cold-shooting performance from the perimeter. Ultimately, though, Michigan should emerge as the victors.

Michigan 75, Illinois 65

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Thanks again to Drew for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to follow him on Twitter (@DrewCHallett) and check out Maize n Brew for more coverage of Wednesday's game. If you're interested in reading the Illinois-themed version of our Q&A, you can view it here.