Big Ten Tournament: Michigan vs. Illinois Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: No. 8 Michigan (23-7, 15-3 B1G) vs. Illinois (19-13, 7-11 B1G) IllinoisLogo[1]
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
When: 12:00 p.m., Friday, March 14th, 2014
Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 1050 AM, XM/Sirius 91
More: Big Ten Tournament Bracket | Beilein | Stauskas | Pick to Click

It’s been a long time since Michigan had such a maneuverable path to Sunday of the Big Ten Tournament and it’s been a long time since the reward for reaching Sunday – a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament – was this important.

Villanova, the presumptive fourth No. 1 seed in most projected brackets, lost to Seton Hall on Thursday afternoon, leading many to believe that the final No. 1 seed is up for grabs between teams like Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Duke. For Michigan, the logic is simple: Win the Big Ten Tournament and you have a legitimate claim for a No. 1 seed.

First up for Michigan is an Illinois team that earned a narrow victory over Indiana to open the Big Ten Tournament.  Michigan throttled the same Illini team in Champaign, 84-53, just nine days ago to cement its Big Ten Championship outright, but will face an Illinois group that just might have an outside shot at the NCAA tournament if it can knock off the Wolverines.

Michigan 84, Illinois 53-30
Dustin Johnston

The Illini

Illinois has the second worst offense in the conference, averaging just .95 points per possession, but the third best defense, holding opponents to just 1.02 points per possession.

Michigan torched the Illini with reckless abandon two weeks ago, but the Illini have been otherwise stout. In five of their last seven games, the Illini have held opponents below .9 points per possession. Michigan has accomplished that feat defensive just three times against high-major competition.

The common denominator in all five great defensive performances was turnovers. Illini opponents gave the ball away on more than a quarter of their possessions in four games and 19% in the other. The Illini are active and aggressive and aren’t scared to trap all over the floor. The problem with Illinois’ defense is what happens after the trap. Big Ten opponents have a 49.7 eFG% against the Illini, third worst in the conference, and are shooting 48.2% on twos (7th) and 34.9% on threes (9th). The last time these two teams met, that flaw resulted in Michigan’s best shooting performance in a Big Ten game since 2006. Illinois also grades out in the bottom quarter of the conference in defensive rebounding.

Offensively, there’s not a lot to get excited about. Illinois is the worst shooting team in the Big Ten with a 43.3 eFG% in conference games. The Illini shoot just 42% on twos (12th) and 30.4% on threes (10th). Illinois shoots fewer free throws than anyone else in the league, attempting just 31 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. In the first meeting, Michigan played its second best defensive game of the Big Ten season, holding the Illini to just a 40.5 eFG%.

Know Your Personnel

We just previewed Illinois in-depth a week ago so today we go with a more high-level overview of the Illini using shot charts.


Click charts to enlarge / Find More Shot Charts at Shot Analytics

Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand aren’t the same players, but all three players struggle to make perimeter jumpshots. Rice, Abrams and Bertrand are a combined 48-of-164 from 3-point range in Big Ten games – that’s 29%. All three players want to do the same thing, attack and try to get to the basket. The lack of diversity in their games leads to two things: Poor shooting in the paint and a lot of turnovers. Rice will shoot a fair number of threes, let him. Bertrand likes to shoot a little floater in the lane, let him. The key to stopping this group is staying in front of them and forcing challenged attempts in the paint.


Click charts to enlarge / Find More Shot Charts at Shot Analytics

Kendrick Nunn is the x-factor for the Illini. He’s been playing great basketball of late, as we documented in the last preview, and he’s the best shooter on the Illinois roster. He finished 6-of-10 from the floor in the first meeting but was only 1-of-4 from 3-point range. Nunn also shows the making of a dangerous floater in the lane.

Jon Ekey is 9 of his last 20 from three-point range and that includes an 0-of-3 against Michigan. He has good size (6-foot-7) and he’s hit some huge shots for the Illini down the stretch. Malcolm Hill is the wild card, he’s started the last nine games, and has shot 2-of-2 from three-point range in three different games. He hasn’t made a three in the other seven.

Big Man

Click chart to enlarge / Find More Shot Charts at Shot Analytics

Egwu loves to shoot midrange jumpers, where he’s okay, but he’s just average around the basket and isn’t a great finisher with his post moves away from the rim. Egwu’s defense (he had five blocks versus Indiana) and his offensive rebounding will be of much higher priority to the Wolverines than his offense. Egwu plays 73% of Illinois’ available minutes, a lot for a big man, but Maverick Morgan will spell him off the bench.


  • Turnovers: Illinois has a defense built on turnovers. Michigan’s offense is built on not turning the ball over. Michigan turned the ball over three times in the first half in Champaign and opened up a huge lead.
  • Outside in: Attacking Egwu at the rim is difficult without first stretching the Illinois defense. The Illini give up a fair number of three-point looks (36% of FGA) and aren’t great at defending them. Michigan won’t go 16-of-23 as it did in Champaign, but hitting a few early threes should open things up.
  • Stop dribble penetration: The Illini have quickness and strength at the guard spots, even if they aren’t the most efficient backcourt. Expect Illinois to try to push the pace and test Michigan’s ability to stop Rice, Nunn and Abrams – who is coming off the best game of his season against Indiana – off the bounce.
  • One-and-done: Michigan did a great job on the defensive glass in the first meeting, rebounding 15% of Illinois’ misses, and that will be key again. The Illini miss a lot of shots, so there will be plenty of opportunities for defensive rebounds.

Bottom Line

Ken Pomeroy likes Michigan, 65-59, giving the Wolverines a 75% chance of advancing to the semifinal against Nebraska or Ohio State. Pomeroy’s log5 projections liked Michigan as a favorite before the tournament started, giving the Wolverines a 25% chance of taking home another trophy.

  • Wayman Britt

    This will be a different game than the last time they met. UM won’t shoot as good as they did at Illinois and look for a better defensive performance from UI. However, still very winnable game and UM should advance.

  • Fresh

    does anybody else have comcast? i’m showing that the big then is on espn2 tomorrow, and the ACC is on espn. just trying to confirm the actual channel

    • Yes, the game is on ESPN. It was a flex.

      Here’s the press release.

      INDIANAPOLIS – The Big Ten announced that Friday’s first two quarterfinal games of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament will be televised on ESPN. Eighth-seeded Illinois will take on top-seeded Michigan at Noon ET, while fifth-seeded Ohio State will face fourth-seeded Nebraska beginning at approximately 2:30 p.m.

      Illinois advanced to the quarterfinals after a 64-54 win over Indiana, while Ohio State defeated Purdue, 63-61, to move onto the quarterfinal round.

      Friday’s evening session will feature two games on BTN. Second-seeded Wisconsin will take on either Minnesota or Penn State beginning at 6:30 p.m., while third-seeded Michigan State will face either Iowa or Northwestern at approximately 9 p.m.

      • loach

        A 10 point win over an Indiana team can hardly be called a “narrow win.”

  • Chezaroo

    Historically teams playing their first game after the bye start off very slowly in this tournament. The first 5-7 minutes adjusting to the venue where the opposition has already acclimated to the surroundings. Seeing we have already cornered the market on slow starts, anything better than our “usual” start would serve us well. We are probably not going to shoot as well as we did in the last encounter, but as long as we minimize our TOs ( our forte ) and limit their run outs, this is a game we should win. The potential to overlook a team you blitzed by 31 nine days ago is only human nature however, and how much energy we come out with will be the telling tale.

  • mistersuits

    Iowa, woof. You’re officially on the bubble Hawkeyes.

  • Well at least someone thinks Michigan is a 1 seed

  • Tony DeMaria

    I’ve waited 16 years for UM to do something in the Big Ten Tourney, lets make a run! I know we got to the Semis once since 98, but we were throttled by Ohio if I recall correctly. We’re 4-0 against all teams we could possibly face in the next 2 rounds (and 3 of them were on the road), We have a great chance of at least getting to the final. Let’s get it done!