Thursday's first game features perhaps the two Big Ten teams that dealt with the most adversity throughout the course of the season. Michigan's injury issues and Illinois' disciplinary suspensions are well-documented, but each side had some quality moments battling through these problems.
The Illini and Wolverines split their regular season games in thrilling fashion, with both games going to overtime. In the Big Ten opener for both squads in late December, Michigan freshman Aubrey Dawkins stole the show in front of new maize and blue football coach Jim Harbaugh, scoring 17 of his game-high 20 points after halftime to propel the Wolverines to a 73-65 win. In the rematch a month ago in Champaign, Illinois rode a 21-2 run to dominate the close of the second half and overtime for a 64-52 win.
When Illinois has the ball
The Illini limped into the conference tournament having lost four of their final six regular season games. Head coach John Groce finally seems to have his team back, though, and the four-headed guard monster of Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Ahmad Starks account for nearly three-fourths of Illinois' scoring. While Michigan is generally thought of as a team that attempts a lot of three-point shots, the Illini are right behind them, third in the conference at 20 long-range jacks per game. With a limited interior presence, look for Illinois to try to push the tempo in this one and rain shots from the perimeter.
When Michigan has the ball
With Caris LeVert done for the season and Derrick Walton, Jr having missed the past nine games, Michigan's disappointing finish to the season is not much of a surprise. The Wolverines lost seven of their final nine regular season games, but did end the season on a high note, with a 10-point win over Rutgers on Senior Day in Ann Arbor. Zak Irvin has become the number one offensive option for head coach John Beilein with LeVert and Walton sidelined, averaging 14 points per game. Dawkins, who put up 31, including 8-11 from three-point range, against the Scarlet Knights, Spike Albrecht, and Max Biefeldt have also been called upon to contribute more. Like Illinois, Michigan relies heavily on the three-ball, taking 22 per game as a team.
This game has all the makings of a shootout. Both teams are going to shoot from distance and do so often. The key may be whether a post player, like Nnanna Egwu of Illinois or Ricky Doyle of Michigan, can impact the offensive glass and get some easy interior buckets. If either squad sees someone get hot from three-point range, as Dawkins did in Saturday's regular season finale, they may be able to ride that to the next round and a matchup with Wisconsin.