The Fighting Illini let a golden opportunity slip away, coughing up a 14-point halftime lead in a 59-58 loss to Maryland in Saturday’s Big Ten opener. Illinois scored a paltry 19 points in the second half and were undone by several questionable calls, puzzling coaching decisions, and — naturally — a lengthy scoring drought. Alas, the Illini are 0-1 in conference play and now square off with the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines on Wednesday night.
What They’ve Done So Far
Head coach Juwan Howard didn’t really have time to get acclimated to his new gig, but it hasn’t seemed to matter early on. The Wolverines (8-1, 1-0 Big Ten) already have three high-quality non-conference wins, defeating Iowa State, North Carolina & Gonzaga en route to the Battle 4 Atlantis title. Michigan’s only loss thus far was a 58-43 defeat to No. 1 Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Wolverines opened up conference action with a 103-91 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes. Six players scored in double-digits, and the team poured in 10 treys and shot better than 55% from the floor.
Players To Watch
While most would tend to focus on Michigan’s guards (namely Zavier Simpson and Eli Brooks), I’ll be paying close attention to how Illinois matches up in the frontcourt. Giorgi Bezhanishvili & Kofi Cockburn will be pitted against the Wolverines’ tandem of 7-foot-1 Jon Teske and former Illini target Colin Castleton.
Teske (pictured below) has gotten his senior season off to a great start, averaging 14.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game.
Castleton, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, has seen a more expanded role this year as Teske’s primary backup. He’s averaging 5.1 points and 2.9 rebounds despite only playing about 10 minutes per game. Castleton has made the most of his chances, scoring on 19 of 28 shot attempts.
Isaiah Livers isn’t a “traditional” big, but at 6-feet-7, he can switch between playing the three and four. Livers leads Michigan in scoring (15.1 points per game) and three-point shooting (49%). Can he sustain that success rate throughout the season? Likely not. But Illinois can’t afford to give him space to let it rip from long range.
Keys To The Game
Illinois has to manage its mistakes if it wants to compete. Every possession will matter. The Fighting Illini enter this game tied for 291st in turnovers per game (15.6). That’s actually an improvement from where they were earlier this season. Cut down the turnovers, choose better shots (and make the easy ones), and maybe you can stay in it.
Illinois hasn’t been a very good three-point shooting team this year (32.9%). Michigan is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation (39.9%). I’d love to see Brad Underwood feed Cockburn early and often. Iowa employed a similar gameplan against the Wolverines — center Luka Garza scored 44 points on a preposterous 32 shot attempts. The Hawkeyes still lost by 12, but clearly Iowa’s coaching staff saw something it wanted to exploit. Kofi has been Illinois’ most consistent performer but wasn’t on the floor during the last six minutes of the loss to Maryland. Some of that was due to foul trouble, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Terps were able to basically shut out the Illini during that stretch.
One thing I appreciated from the Maryland game was that Illinois played angry from the opening tip. They knew a slow start would doom them, and they showed great energy and intensity early. Now...can you unlock that energy and intensity for a FULL 40 minutes? Tournament teams do this, championship-caliber teams do this. The Illini have yet to show that they can.
In that same vein, Ayo Dosunmu needs to start playing like an all-conference player. Ayo has had little impact in Illinois’ biggest games (6-14 FG, 15 pts vs. Arizona; 5-14 FG, 12 pts vs. Miami; 4-12 FG, 9 pts vs. Maryland). That HAS to change.
The Wolverines present a very difficult matchup. They have depth, size, experience, athleticism, and can score from inside and outside. No scenario is going to intimidate them — this group has been a part of plenty of big games and high-pressure situations. The Illini, however, have been unable to seize their moments when they’ve mattered. Sure, it’s fun to beat Hampton and Lindenwood by 50, but there aren’t any Hamptons or Lindenwoods in the Big Ten.
Had the Illini defeated Maryland the tone of this game would be greatly different. But now? Illinois needs this one — not just to avoid an ignominious 0-2 B1G start, but to regain its confidence and to prove that it belongs in the national conversation. The home crowd at State Farm Center should provide a jolt, but I’m not sure the Orange & Blue have enough to outlast the Maize & Blue.
Final: Michigan 81, Illinois 72