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PREVIEW: Illinois Basketball returns home for matchup against Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines come into Champaign with the same record as Illinois does in what could be a crucial bubble battle.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois (11-5) vs Michigan (11-5)

When: Wednesday, January 11th | 8:00pm CST

Where: State Farm Center | Champaign, IL

KenPom: Illinois (72nd) vs Michigan (39th)

Television: BTN (streaming available online or in BTN2Go app)

Radio: Fighting Illini Sports Network

The Fighting Illini are coming off an embarrassing road defeat to the Indiana Hoosiers. After getting down right out of the gate 14-0, Illinois was never able to climb out of the hole they dug themselves and ultimately ended up dropping the contest 96-80. Malcolm Hill had another strong game with 21 points and 4 rebounds, but, as we’ve mentioned numerous times before, Illinois needs to be more than “give Malcolm the ball and see what happens.”

Enter the Michigan Wolverines, whom the Illini will run into twice in the next ten days. John Beilen’s crew are coming off of a tough home loss to Maryland. The Wolverines remained competitive throughout the game and got within three points of the Terrapins with thirty seconds to go, but couldn’t complete the comeback. Michigan boasts several players who can shoot lights out from behind the arc in Mark Donnal, D.J. Wilson and Duncan Robinson. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are also shooting well over thirty percent from three-point range, meaning the Wolverines have enough deep threats to shoot Illinois out of the gym. John Groce’s squad definitely has the edge in the paint as Michigan only rosters one true center and is dead last in the Big Ten in rebounds per game.

Numbers to Know


That’s Michigan’s turnover margin ranking in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are a +3.4 through sixteen games, while Illinois is -0.6. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is also number one in the conference, as they average just nine turnovers per game while forcing thirteen a game. The Illini will need to limit their turnovers and mistakes if they want to come away from this game with a victory.


On the flip side, this is Michigan’s rebounds-per-game ranking nationally. Only twelve teams bring down fewer boards per game than the Wolverines do, which is abysmal for a Big Ten team. Illinois ranks in the top 100, so if the orange and blue can continue to crash the boards with their multitude of big men they might have a huge advantage over the maize and blue.


That’s how many spots separate Michigan and Illinois in bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest March Madness projections. The Wolverines, currently one of the last four teams “in,” would currently rank 67th in Lunardi’s matrix, whereas the Illini would be ranked 74th overall. Only the top 68 teams make it to the big dance, so this matchup will be a crucial battle to decide which one of these teams’ bubbles may burst first.

Keys to the Game

1. Control the paint

As mentioned above, the Illini boast three or four big men while the Wolverines have one (if any) true centers. Maverick Morgan, Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. should be able to feast against the shorter and less aggressive Wolverines in the paint. Groce should place a strong emphasis on crashing the boards against a Michigan team whose leading rebounder, guard D.J. Wilson, is pulling down just under six rebounds per game. The maize and blue clearly outmatch the Illini from beyond the arc but if Abrams and the other guards can dump it inside and give the big boys more touches then Illinois’ chances of winning the game go up tremendously.

2. Run shooters off the three-point line

Following along with the first key, Michigan can shoot it lights out from deep. The defensive focus for this game needs to be on running the Wolverine shooters off the three-point line. Groce has shown a likelihood to switch to the 2-3 zone this season when things aren’t going well or to start out the game, but in this case that would only lead to more defensive troubles. The Wolverines’ strong starting backcourt of Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. need to be forced to drive it inside the paint instead of letting them settle for deep shots. Otherwise, the young run-and-gun Wolverines will shoot Illinois right out of the State Farm Center.

3. Get off to a hot start

This might be the most important key of all. In two of the team’s last three games they’ve fallen behind by double digits right out of the gate. If the Illini want to get back in the win column they’ll have to throw a strong punch to start off the game against Michigan. If the orange and blue can get off to a big lead early on, the home crowd and their advantage on the inside can carry them to a conference victory. Groce’s team can’t afford to sleepwalk through another first half.

Projected Starting Lineups


1. Derrick Walton Jr. (12 points per game, 3.5 assists per game)

2. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (8 points per game, 2.4 rebounds per game)

3. Zak Irvin (14 points per game, 3.7 assists per game)

4. D.J. Wilson (10.3 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game)

5. Moritz Wagner (12 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game)


1. Tracy Abrams (11 points per game, 2.9 assists per game)

2. Jalen Coleman-Lands (9 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game)

3. Malcolm Hill (19 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game)

4. Leron Black (10 points per game, 7 rebounds per game)

5. Mike Thorne Jr. (6 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game)


If the Wolverines get hot from deep they could run away with this game. However, the Illini have the home court advantage and I think they’ll respond well to that disappointing loss at Indiana. This will be a close battle throughout and maybe Tracy Abrams will be able to avenge his most recent Michigan memory (missing a floater at the buzzer to send Illinois to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament) with a strong performance. That said, Michigan is the stronger team and given Illinois’ defensive woes I see the Wolverines coming out of this game with a road victory.

Michigan 72, Illinois 61

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