What Happened Last Year:
Illinois went 1-2 last year in three matchups against Michigan. The Illini won the first game of the series with an excellent performance. In one of the better games Illinois played all year, this contest saw stellar play from many different Illini. Maverick Morgan led the team in scoring while shooting 8-of-9 from the floor, Jalen Coleman-Lands was 4-for-5 from the three-point line. Kipper Nichols added 13 points and 8 rebounds. It was just an impressive showing from the Illini offense. At the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor for the sequel, Illinois didn’t fare as well. John Groce’s squad got behind the 8-ball early with just 24 first-half points. The lead was as large as 21 for the Wolverines in the second half, but the Illinois comeback fell short. The rubber match of the series was actually the start of an impressive postseason tear for Michigan. The Wolverines, donning practice jerseys after a mishap with their plane take-off, took down the Illini 75-55 en route to a Big Ten Championship and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
How Can Illinois Win:
The Illini will need a very impressive showing to beat Michigan on the road. The Wolverines are coming off a solid year, but the good news for Illinois is that the Maize and Blue also lose a lot of key players. John Beilein is tasked with the challenge of replacing Zak Irvin, D.J. Wilson, and Derrick Walton, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection. Those three guys combined for 45 points a game and 20 rebounds per game last year. Luckily for Brad Underwood, he gets to face the Wolverines early in the year and perhaps steal a game he shouldn’t win. It will require almost everything to go right for Illinois to pull out this win. Illinois will need to exploit any potential holes left in the lineup and play a clean, mistake-free game to have a chance of winning this one.
How Can Illinois Lose:
This game could go south and in a hurry if Illinois does not come ready to play. Even though Michigan lost a few studs, they replace them with transfer Ja’aron Simmons, who averaged 15 points per game last year, four-star shooting guard Jordan Poole, four-star forward Isaiah Livers, and Charles Matthews is eligible to play this year. Blend this crop of young talent with a nice corps of experience in Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Michigan is left with a talented tournament group. Simply, this team could be just too much for the Illini to handle. Everyone on the floor for Michigan at any given time is a threat to put the ball in the hoop. Brad Underwood prides himself in his offensive efficiency, but going round-for-round with Michigan won’t win it for the Illini.
Illinois will be faced with some tough early conference opponents. The Illini get Maryland and Northwestern in early December before opening back up the rest of their Big Ten schedule on the road at Minnesota and Michigan. All four of these teams are expected to be atop the conference this year. Illinois might be able to stay with the Wolverines for the first ten minutes or so, and if the game is still competitive at halftime, you have to be happy with the Illini’s performance. However, Michigan should win this one by at least 15 points.