HQ men's hoops prediction: Michigan 67, UI 63
No. 12 Michigan at Illinois, 6 p.m. Tuesday
Illinois (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 10.9
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 5.8
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 15.8
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 4.2
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 6.9
FYI: In Big Ten play, Nunn, the conference’s Freshman of the Week, is third on the team in scoring at 8.1 points per game.
OFF THE BENCH
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 7.3
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 9.2
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.0
Michigan (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Derrick Walton Jr. Fr. 6-1 8.3
G Caris LeVert So. 6-6 13.4
G Nik Stauskas So. 6-6 17.1
F Glenn Robinson III So. 6-6 13.0
F Jordan Morgan Sr. 6-8 5.2
FYI: LeVert tied a career high with five assists in Saturday’s win against Minnesota. It’s the sixth time he’s recorded five or more assists, and the Wolverines are 6-0 when he does.
OFF THE BENCH
G Zak Irvin Fr. 6-6 7.1
G Spike Albrecht So. 5-11 3.4
F Jon Horford Jr. 6-10 4.4
Site: State Farm Center (16,618), Champaign.
TV: ESPN — Mike Tirico (play-by-play) and Dan Dakich (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 85-76. Last meeting: No. 7 Michigan 71, Illinois 58, Feb. 24, 2013 (Ann Arbor).
FYI: This is the ninth time this season Illinois will face a ranked opponent. Illinois is 2-6 against Top 25 foes this season, defeating then-No. 22 Missouri and then-No. 18 Michigan State on Saturday. The last home win against a ranked opponent was the win against No. 1 Indiana in February 2013.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
1. How has Illinois, after losing eight straight, played itself back into a position in which an NCAA tournament berth, while a serious long shot, remains a possibility? Defense. The Illini have been solid at that end much of the season, but this run of holding four consecutive opponents under 50 points, including Michigan State, is a rare deal. It’s been 66 years since Illinois has done this. Stout defense is something that’s preached every day, and it recently started to come together for the team. “More guys understand what they’re supposed to be doing on a consistent basis. Their habits are better,” coach John Groce said. “You start to get to a point where it becomes ingrained. We still can get better in some areas, but all in all, they understand our defense a lot more, and it’s made it more effective.”
2. As good as Illinois’ defense has been the last two weeks, it’s going to be tested at a high level Tuesday night against John Beilein’s Wolverines. Michigan enters the game second in the country in offensive efficiency and features three players who score 13 points or more per game. “They have multiple shooters, multiple weapons. They execute in the halfcourt as good as any team we’ve seen on film this year, and we’ve played against some good ones,” Groce said. In Saturday’s win at Michigan State, the Illini turned the Spartans over 16 times, including 14 steals. They had 42 deflections in the game, the most in more than 10 games. Duplicating that will be tough Tuesday night. “Michigan was second in the country in its most recent game in fewest turnovers,” Groce said.
3. Though the reminder is there on the scoreboard every day at the beginning of practice, Illinois hasn’t spoken much as a team about the possibility of playing postseason basketball. All that’s been discussed in the days following the Michigan State win has been Michigan. The clock at Ubben Basketball Complex and State Farm Center reads 3 minutes, 18 seconds in reference to the NCAA tournament beginning March 18. If they continue winning games and doing the things that got them to this point, that stuff will take care of itself. “We’re one game at a time, one day at a time,” Groce said. “Because of that mind-set and the fact that they’ve honored the process put them in a position where not everybody in February and March have a chance to play for things, and our guys have a chance to do that. That’s pretty cool.”
No. 12 Michigan 67, Illinois 63
In Groce’s first year at Illinois, his team played its best basketball late in the season, coming within a couple of possessions of reaching the Sweet 16. It happened at Ohio, too, where the Bobcats won a pair of Mid-American Conference tournament titles and three NCAA tournament games in two trips. This season’s Illinois team, though it began to surge later, is following a familiar script. Playing well late is the goal of most programs, and Groce learned that approach during his time as an assistant. One year a team he was coaching didn’t play well down the stretch, and it caught up to them in the postseason. “I’ve always remembered that. I talk to the guys about that a lot and continuing to be that team that always improves and gets better,” Groce said. “We always want to play our best basketball in February and March if we can. There’s not an exact science; each team’s different. But I think a big part of it is continuing to stay the course and continuing to make sure that you keep them mentally and physically fresh.” (N-G prediction record: 22-7)