Beat writer's pick: Michigan 75, Illinois 71
Michigan at Illinois
8 p.m. today
Illinois (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Gr. 6-2 10.9
G Jalen Coleman-Lands So. 6-3 8.9
G Malcolm Hill Sr. 6-6 18.8
F Leron Black R-So. 6-7 9.9
C Mike Thorne Jr. Gr. 6-11 5.9
Off the bench
C Maverick Morgan Sr. 6-10 9.4
F Michael Finke R-So. 6-10 7.1
G Te’Jon Lucas Fr. 6-0 3.3
FYI: Morgan’s 18-point performance at Indiana was his fifth double-digit scoring effort in six games. He’s averaging 11.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the Big Ten.
Michigan (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Derrick Walton Jr. Sr. 6-1 12.1
G M.-Ali Abdur-Rahkman Jr. 6-4 7.8
F Zak Irvin Sr. 6-6 14.0
F D.J. Wilson Jr. 6-10 10.3
F Moritz Wagner So. 6-11 11.9
Off the bench
G Xavier Simpson Fr. 6-0 1.5
G Duncan Robinson Sr. 6-8 8.8
F Mark Donnal Sr. 6-9 6.0
FYI: Wagner ranks third in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, shooting 61.3 percent on the season — behind only Iowa freshman Cordell Pemsl (66 percent) and Wisconsin redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ (64.6 percent).
Site: State Farm Center (15,544), Champaign.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Deon Thomas (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WHMS 97.5-FM, WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
TV: Kevin Kugler (play-by-play) and Seth Davis (expert analysis) have the call on BTN.
Series history: Illinois leads 86-81.
Last meeting: Michigan won 78-68 on Dec. 30, 2015, in Champaign.
FYI: John Groce’s lone win against Michigan in his first four seasons at Illinois came on Feb. 12, 2015, at State Farm Center. The Illini scored seven consecutive points in the final 2:54 to tie the game in regulation — including five straight to end the game from Kendrick Nunn — before blitzing the Wolverines in overtime 14-2 for a 64-52 victory. Nunn scored four more points in overtime and led the Illini with 21.
Scott Richey’s storylines
DEFENSE TAKES PRIORITY
Defense — particularly needed defensive improvements — was the word (or phrase) of the day when Groce met with media members on Tuesday at State Farm Center in advance of today’s game against Michigan. Groce pointed to defense as his team’s biggest deficiency after losing by 16 on Saturday at Indiana. The metrics bear it out. Per KenPom, the Illini are last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency — weighed down by being last on the defensive side of effective field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage and percentage of shots blocked. “We need to be able to keep the ball in front,” freshman point guard Te’Jon Lucas said. “A lot of people are attacking us off the dribble now. We’ve got the lowest (defensive efficiency rating) in the conference, and we’re not happy about that. We’ve been focusing on strictly defending in practice. If we can’t defend, we can’t win games.”
QUICKER START NEEDED
As much as defense is a priority for Illinois, avoiding a repeat of the start the Illini had against Indiana — falling behind 15-0 — is also a focus. Groce contended his team played well for 30 minutes against the Hoosiers, but he also said that’s not good enough to win in the Big Ten. Senior guard Malcolm Hill said the Illini need to be more on the attack and not feel the game out as much early. “I think I could do a better job of that just because I’m a guy that naturally goes with the flow,” Hill said. “I can take responsibility on that. What I take from (Saturday’s) game is I think we’re capable. I think the people that came off the bench did a great job trying to come in and compete and give us energy.”
NEW LOOK FOR MICHIGAN, TOO
Michigan’s backcourt returned relatively intact from a year ago save for Aubrey Dawkins’ transfer to Central Florida to play for his dad and Caris LeVert (who was hurt) selected in the first round of the NBA draft. The frontcourt has a new look with Mark Donnal and Moe Wagner splitting time at the 5 and D.J. Wilson holding things down at the 4. “Wagner’s just a tough matchup — he and Donnal,” Groce said. “Those guys make it more difficult to defend them when your 5s can stretch the floor like that and can make plays with the pass and play off the deck. ... D.J. Wilson may be one of the most improved players in our league from last year to this year. He gives them rebounding, gives them length, some athleticism, but he also doesn’t sacrifice skill with that.”
Prediction: Michigan 75, Illinois 71
Illinois already has faced this scenario. Recently, too. A bad road loss, followed by a return home. The Illini made a quick turnaround from a blowout at Maryland to defeat Ohio State about two weeks ago. They get another shot at redemption today against Michigan after falling to Indiana. Talent is probably equal between the two teams that both feature a mix of experience and youth, but one thing tips the scale in the Wolverines’ favor: John Beilein has had Groce’s number, with seven wins in eight games. (N-G prediction record: 12-4)