Date: Friday, March 11
Time: around 2:30 PM EST (30 minutes after Ohio State vs. Northwestern wraps up)
The Bracket Situation
Sure, both the Illini and Wolverines are considered "in" right now as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned, but you can never be too sure in March and that extra win never hurts. In Bracketology 101's latest update, Illinois is chilling on the 9 line while Michigan is positioned more precariously as an 11. Blogging the Bracket sees things a little differently, with both teams back-to-back on the 10 line. So, yeah this one should be fairly competitive.
Illinois and Michigan only had one game together this season; a February 16 showdown in Champaign. Illinois took that game 54-52 behind 18 Demetri McCamey points, but it was as narrow a victory as they come, with Michigan failing on a couple of attempts that would have tied the game on their final possession. Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined for 12 assists, but the Wolverines were doomed by poor distance shooting (2/18 from 3-point range). This time around Michigan would be wise to head to the basket more often, as Illinois has only allowed 29.9% 3-point shooting on the season.
More recently, Illinois is fresh off of the total destruction of Indiana, while Michigan just defeated the rival Spartans to put them in great position to make the NCAA Tournament.
Both of these squads are similar in that they operate from the perimeter. They're both proficient shooting teams who don't waste chances by turning the ball over often. However, with a lack of post presence, they struggle to get second chances on the offensive glass. They also don't get to the line much, preferring to attack from outside. With guys like Mike Tisdale and Jereme Richmond, Illinois manages to be about average on the offensive glass, but they turn it over a good deal more than the Wolverines, who are led by Big Ten assist leader Darius Morris.
On defense, Illinois have a noticeable advantage in eFG% against, which is partially due to their excellent defense of 3-point jumpers. That could be the big difference in this game, since both teams like to light it up from outside.
Non-Stars to Watch
We're already discussed how Illinois' 3-point defense trumped Michigan in the first game these teams played. In order to overcome that, the Wolverines should work to get freshman big man Jordan Morgan more involved than usual. Morgan is the one true post threat on this Michigan team, and he had a decent enough game vs. Illinois, accounting for 12 points and 7 rebounds on 6/10 shooting in 25 minutes. Morgan probably would have played more if he hadn't accrued 4 fouls in the process. Hmmmm... the fouls will be a problem for Morgan and the Wolverines, because they don't have anyone else to guard Tisdale or discourage McCamey at the rim. It will be up to the freshman to avoid fouls as much as possible so he can stay on the floor and give the Illini trouble on the other end.
Bill Cole? Yes, Bill Cole. When teams are as evenly matched as Michigan and Illinois seem to be, one often needs to venture into the land of intangibles to find a difference. In a tight game, Bill Cole can make more than enough of a difference. Although he doesn't touch the ball too often, when he does, Cole doesn't mess around. He shoots 45% from the field including 36% from 3-point range. A 3.33 assist-to-turnover ratio doesn't hurt either. This article from Hail to the Orange explains how the senior forward's hustle and effort can have an impact.
The line right now is at Illinois -3, which sounds about right. The Illini are slight favorites in the eyes of Bracketologists as well. Obviously, either side is capable of winning this match-up, but when in doubt, go with experience. Illinois 65-60.