Preview: Michigan vs. Illinois

After picking up two solid wins against Minnesota and Purdue, Michigan goes on the road to take on an Illinois team that is struggling to find its identity. During the non-conference season, this appeared to be one of the most exciting games on the schedule. However, the Illini have lost 5 of their last 8 games and are only 2-4 in Big Ten play. This has left many with the feeling that Sunday's match-up between the two teams is Michigan's to lose. With Duke losing on Wednesday, this game is another chance for Michigan to move up to #1 in the national rankings.

The Fighting Illini: During last season, Illinois suffered one of the worst season collapses in recent memory. They began their season 15-3 with a 4-1 Big Ten record, a great win over #5 Ohio State, and a solid win over Gonzaga. Few expected the massive letdown that followed leading to a 17-15 overall record, a 6-12 record in the Big Ten, and no postseason tournament. After the season, Illinois fired coach Bruce Weber and brought in John Groce to take over the reigns. As mentioned, he got off to a hot 12-0 start by winning the Maui Tournament, beating Butler, and beating Gonzaga on the road.

During this time, Illinois had to address some major off-season losses with center Meyers Leonard's defection to the pros being the biggest. The good news for Illinois is that they still have some experience to lean on this year. The key piece is guard Brandon Paul. In his 32.3 minutes per game, he has averaged 18 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. Along with this, Paul has come up huge in several games this season. He scored 20 points against Butler, 19 points in a win over Ohio State, and an insane 35 points on the road against Gonzaga. Paul is undoubtedly the leader of this Illinois team and primarily does it through scoring. Along with this, although Paul is not the main point guard, he handles the ball quite a bit as he's second on the team in assists.

Outside of Paul, the main two players to watch are D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams. Richardson averages 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. Because of his 7.1 shot attempts outside the arch per game, his contributions are pretty up and down. His scoring output in the last five illustrates this: 7, 9, 14, 16, and 30 points. On the other hand, Abrams gets most of his contributions on the inside. He averages 11.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. Abrams is just a sophomore, but he has done pretty well at the point and is pretty solid on the pick and roll. There's no way he can win a game alone, but he can do some major damage like in their game against Auburn when he scored 27 points.

There are also a couple other players worth noting. Joseph Bertrand has been a pretty big contributor with 22.9 minutes, 8.7 points, and 4.7 rebounds per game. However, perhaps the most interesting player to note is Tyler Griffey, who has largely been the big man for this team throughout this season. Illinois has developed the reputation of relying too much on 3 pt shots to win. This is partly true. Illinois is #5 in the nation in 3 pt attempts and leads the Big Ten. Part of this was because Illinois was shooting lights out at the beginning of the year, but another part is that Griffey just hasn't been that great in getting to the ball. Rebounds can be pretty random, especially when attempting shots outside the arch, but being 170th in rebounding in the nation is pretty troubling, especially since Illinois has dropped to 11th in the Big Ten during conference play. If a team keeps shooting poorly and can't rebound, they're going to have problems.

Overall, Illinois is not a bad team. They are currently #56 according to KenPom and still have a pretty impressive resume despite dropping three of their last four games. However, they live and die on the performance of their two best players. Paul and Richardson have averaged 39.6% of the entire team's shot attempts and during Big Ten season, they have averaged a whopping 44.8% of the team's shot attempts. The important part of this high number is that 52% of Paul and Richardson's shot attempts are outside the arch. That means that a huge portion of the Illini's offense relies on two players shooting outside the arch. Even if one of these two has an off night from 3 pt land, it could be a rough night. For a team looking for consistent play, this is probably not the best recipe for success and is one of the major reasons why they have struggled so much recently.

Keys To The Game: Based on their love of the three-ball, Michigan's perimeter defense will be key today. Michigan has struggled with its perimeter defense, but have been improving as a defense overall the last few games. Michigan may have used two big men against Purdue, but that's probably not going to happen here. They are going to want bodies that can play a lot of man defense on the outside. This is going to be important for Stauskas, who struggles with this at times.

The second thing to watch for are back door cuts. Illinois and Brandon Paul used these very well in several of their games and probably best in their blowout of Ohio State at home. Their perimeter game allows them to set this up and burn teams that play aggressively on the outside. Michigan has not been burned too badly by these during the season, but the Wolverines tend to hedge out their big men pretty often, which could open up some of these plays. Stopping the shooting of Illinois is the most important thing, but this will be interesting to watch if Illinois hits shots early.

Offensively, Michigan should get a lot more room than they have gotten against their last few opponents. Watch to see who gets matched up with Brandon Paul (most likely guess is Burke) and whether Michigan tries to get the post game going with either McGary or Morgan against a pretty weak frontcourt in Illinois. Overall, the tough road environment will likely play a factor, but Michigan is a better and more consistent team than Illinois and Illinois' weak defensive play will likely get exposed by Michigan.

Players To Watch: As noted above, the player that will probably be challenged the most in this one is Stauskas. He plays the majority of his game on the perimeter and has had some trouble against athletic players off the dribble. A good portion of his difficulties have been the result of getting matched up on big men on the inside, but he is going to need to be sharp defensively to do well in this one. McGary is also a player to watch in this game. He has been consistently improving and there has even been debate about whether he should move into the starting role. He has a good opportunity to be active in the post against Illinois. The final player to watch in this game is Tim Hardaway, Jr. He will surely be challenged in this one on the outside, but Michigan is going to need him to get going on offense as well. Illinois will likely look to lock down on Burke, which should give Hardaway some open pathways to the basket.

Prediction: Michigan by 7

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