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2017 Big Ten Tournament Preview: #8 Michigan Wolverines vs. #9 Illinois Fighting Illini

Can Illinois pull off the upset and rise up the ranks of NCAA bubble teams?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines and Illinois Fighting Illini square off in the second round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday in a game that is bursting at the seams with NCAA Tournament implications.

At this point, it is still a bit confusing to see Illinois on the cusp of Joe Lunardi’s bracket after what appeared to be another season of mediocrity in Champaign. In January, the Illini were trending towards the cellar of the conference after losing six of seven games. Fans were begging for the firing of coach John Groce.

It was a disaster.

Fast forward to present day, and a win today—and probably another Friday—could plunge the Fighting Illini into the big dance for the first time since 2013. Regular season victories over Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern have tidied up the Illini resume and one more tally against the Wolverines could be the difference between the NCAA tournament and the NIT. If Illinois hadn’t dropped their regular season finale to Rutgers, you could possibly make the argument that they would be in regardless of today’s outcome.

Michigan, on the other hand, appears to be comfortably situated in the bracket, but if there is one thing to remember come Selection Sunday, it’s that one analyst, fan or program can never be certain. An early exit in the tournament could leave the Wolverines on the outside looking in OR leave them with an infelicitous seed. Especially depending on how the other conference tournaments play out, with other bubble teams vying for a bid and the possibility of a few sub-par teams stealing automatic bids.

Let’s take a closer look at the game.

#9 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. #8 Michigan Wolverines

  • Time/TV: 11am CT — BTN
  • Covers spread: Michigan (-5.5)

This contest will be the first of the second round, with the winner set to take on No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday.

Michigan and Illinois split its regular season series, with each team holding serve on their home floor. The Fighting Illini handled the Wolverines 85-69 on January 11th, but Michigan returned the favor with a 66-57 win later on in the month.

If there is one aspect of the game Illinois executes well, it is crashing the defensive boards. Groce’s team ranks third in the conference in that realm, securing 72.8 percent of its opponents’ misses.

Illinois wing Malcom Hill has shouldered the load for the team this season, especially down the stretch of the conference schedule. The senior is averaging 19.2 points in his last six contests and dropped at least 15 in both contests against the Wolverines.

On the other side, Derrick Walton is one of the Big Ten’s most prolific scorers. As such, the offense tends to revolve around him, which at times, can allow defenses to hone in solely on Walton while forcing his supporting cast to make plays.

DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner have shown they can be dynamic in the front court, but they can be streaky. Wilson and Wagner must aid Walton and Zak Irvin in scoring to provide a more balanced offensive attack. While Wagner has scored double digits in three of the last five games, eight point clunkers are sandwiched between. Wilson hasn’t eclipsed his average in his last three outings.

The spread is a little heavy at nearly six points, but I like Michigan to cover.