The seventh-ranked Michigan Wolverines put their undefeated mark at the Crisler Center on the line on Sunday afternoon when they entertain the Illinois Fighting Illini in a Big Ten Conference showdown.
After starting its Big Ten slate a lackluster 2-7, Illinois (20-8) has caught fire in recent weeks with five straight wins, its most recent coming in a 64-59 home defeat of Penn State on Thursday night. The Illini have racked up their share of signature wins this season, having taken down elite conference foes Indiana and Ohio State as well as non-conference ranked squads Gonzaga and Butler.
After being named the top-ranked team in the country in late January, Michigan faltered in three out of four to dip to 22-4 and fall back in the Big Ten standings. The Wolverines bounced back last Sunday with a 79-71 home win over Penn State to improve to 9-4 in the league, and they are now 15-0 at the Crisler Center this season and 30-1 at home over the past two campaigns.
Michigan has defeated Illinois on four straight occasions, including 74-60 on Jan. 27 in Champaign. The Illini still lead the all-time series over the Wolverines, 85-75.
Although Illinois never led PSU by double-digits in its latest bout, it also never surrendered its advantage after halftime as it held on for the five- point win. It was a rather lackluster offensive effort for the team, as it made less than 40 percent of its field-goal attempts (including just 7-of-24 from 3-point range). The difference was made at the foul line, where it outscored the Nittany Lions, 23-9. D.J. Richardson connected on all but one of his nine free-throw attempts and finished with 18 points, while Brandon Paul added 16 points in the winning effort. On the season, the Illini score the fourth-most points in the conference (71.2 ppg), but while their scoring defense may appear impressive by most standards (65.1 ppg), in the treacherous Big Ten it ranks just 11th. The guard-heavy squad is led by the efforts of Paul, who nets 16.4 ppg, while also pitching in 4.3 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.3 spg and 0.7 bpg. Richardson adds 12.9 ppg, and he and Paul have combined for 126 3- pointers. Tracy Abrams also nets in double figures with 10.6 ppg.
Michigan experienced a bit of a scare against last-place PSU it last time out, as the teams went into halftime tied, but after shooting just 36 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, the Wolverines improved to 58.3 percent shooting after intermission as they pulled away for the eight-point win. Trey Burke was outstanding once again, shooting 9-of-16 from the field and 8-of-9 from the foul line for 29 points, and he's now just 13 points away from becoming the 47th player in school history (and just the seventh sophomore) to score 1,000 in his career. Glenn Robinson III tallied a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Nik Stauskas was also stellar with 18 points. Michigan's dominating season has shown through both its scoring (76.2 ppg) and scoring defense (61.4 ppg), and it also boasts great rebounding (+5.2) and turnover (+2.7) margins. Burke is well on his way to an All-American selection at season's end, as he shoots nearly 49 percent from the field for 18.6 ppg while handing out 179 assists (6.9 pg) to only 47 turnovers. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is also in the midst of an outstanding season with 15.2 ppg. Not to be lost in the shuffle are Stauskas (12.2 ppg, .470 3PT percentage) and Robinson (11.3 ppg, 5.6 ppg).