Don’t look now, but the Illinois Fighting Illini cagers are on a three game winning streak, and they are playing very good basketball right now. Defense has been their calling card, and both Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill have emerged since their insertion into the starting lineup.
Nunn, particularly, has been playing very well during this run and as a result he has been named Big Ten Freshman of the week not once, but twice. So, kudos to the Illini for picking themselves up off the deck and fighting with all they have to save their season.
Tonight’s game presents yet another stiff challenge as the Big Ten leading #12 Michigan Wolverines (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten) bring their maize and blue carcasses to the State Farm Center for the last Illini home game of the season. It will be senior night for Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey. Here’s hoping the last game they play on their home floor this season ends with a victory.
Much like the Illini, the Wolverines come in to this one hot. They’ve won three in a row as well, and four of their last five. Nik Stauskas (17.1 ppg), Caris LeVert (13.4 ppg), and Glenn Robinson III (13.0 ppg) all come in to this game sizzling with each of them posting double digit efforts in each of their past 4 games. While it hasn’t always been pretty from a percentage standpoint, it’s the final numbers on the stat sheet that end up mattering most, and these three guys have been taking care of business during the Wolverines recent run. John Groce’s defensive scheme is going to be predicated on stopping them, and the Illini’s guard defense has been superb as of late. There is no reason to believe they can’t come out tonight and lock down on this Wolverine trio.
“Coach Groce is excellent at defensive preparation. Like many teams lately, he will make the perimeter game of Michigan difficult to execute. Michigan would be wise to go to option 2 early and try and get inside for easy scores. Illinois has size at guard, but maybe not as much quickness. Illinois finally gets to play a small team where the bigs can come into play. Look for Groce to run options that pound the ball at Morgan and Horford to pick up points and fouls.”
They are right when mentioning Groce is excellent at defensive preparation, but where I disagree is when they say that Michigan might be wise to attack the interior of the Illinois defense. Nnanna Egwu is an elite post defender, and bringing the game to him may be a mistake as long as Egwu can stay out of foul trouble. Egwu’s 65 blocks rank 2nd on the UI all time single season list. By all means, Wolverines, bring it inside. Just don’t be surprised if Egwu swats it away.
Further, I see the Illini continuing to attack the basket, but not necessarily running any type of post plays because quite honestly, that’s not who this team is. Egwu is not a power post, and neither is Ekey. It may be a sound strategy to try and get the interior defenders in foul trouble for Michigan, but those fouls are going to come from the guards getting penetration rather than a conventional post offense.
At any rate, please feel free to click on the link and read the rest of what the GBMWolverine staff has to say about tonight’s match-up. It’s always good to get a fresh take from the other side of the fence.
Three Things I’d like to see tonight:
1. Continued success and development for Nunn and Hill - We already talked about Nunn’s back to back Freshman of the week honors. Hill has averaged 7.7 points since joining the starting rotation. At this point all I want to see is more of the same type of play out of the two freshmen. No regression, only progression.
2. Win the Rebounding Battle - In Michigan’s last 2 losses, they also lost the rebounding battle. Beat them on the glass on both ends, and get some second chance points. The Illinois offense doesn’t make enough shots so finding points elsewhere should be at a premium.
3. Value the basketball - Just like rebounding, Michigan’s last two losses also included losses in the turnover column. Illinois needs to value the basketball and force Michigan to commit more turnovers than they do. Once again, finding points elsewhere should be a priority, and there are no better points than ones gained off transition baskets via the steal.
When: Tuesday, March 4, 2014, 6 PM CST
Where: State Farm Center – Champaign, IL
TV: ESPN (Directv 206 / DISH Network 140)
Announcers: Mike Tirico (Play by Play) and Dan Dakich (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with other Illini fans in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.