If I had told you that the most fraudulent team in the Big Ten was Illinois on January 10th you might not have believed me. Heck, I might not have believed this myself. Illinois was 15-3, 4-1 in the Big Ten, just outside of the rankings, and had just defeated #5 Ohio State. However, what followed is arguably one of the biggest collapses in recent memory. Illinois would lose 9/10 games including losses to Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
Think about that for a second. Their collapse is actually kind of impressive. Illinois had an 80% winning percentage in Big Ten play on January 10th. They had even played decent teams in Northwestern and Ohio State. Sure, they had games against Minnesota and Nebraska, but they beat #5 Ohio State, that has to count for something. It's still a quality win for the Illini, but when a team follows up that performance by winning 10% of its next 10 games, there is a problem.
So, what caused this collapse? The obvious answer would be that Illinois was a fraud (and I don't mean the kind that steals your credit card numbers). Illinois won 4/5 Big Ten games, but they only ended up +1 point through their first five Big Ten games. Sure, there are all kinds of statistical problems with calculating performance simply off points, but that's pretty astounding. Along with this, they had to go to double overtime to beat Minnesota, at home.
Even looking through the rest of Illinois's schedule and wins, one can get the sense that Illinois's early season success was a fraud. Look at their win against Michigan State. It was at home and ended up only being by 1 point. They had numerous close losses, but as I stated earlier, they were against teams like Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska, who are not exactly the powerhouses of the Big Ten.
So, why do I bring this up in a Michigan vs. Illinois preview? The main reason is to point out that this Illinois team has completely collapsed. They are only 1 game ahead of Nebraska and Penn State, meaning they are 10th in the Big Ten right now. Traveling to face the 10th best team in the Big Ten shouldn't be something that Michigan or fans should fear. Sure, they've managed to beat Ohio State and Michigan State, but those wins were pretty fluky, relying on bad performances from the other teams and ridiculous performances from one or two players.
Illinois's offense has become virtually non-existent. Even Nebraska was able to contain them pretty well. One of the main problems has been their movement away from Meyers Leonard for no apparent reason. Leonard is still one of the best big men in the conference and Michigan doesn't really have anybody that matches up well against him. He got in some foul trouble against Michigan last time and didn't have a big impact, which is what the Wolverines will look for again this time.
The only other real offensive threat is Brandon Paul, who put up 43 points against Ohio State. Yes, he put up 43 points. I linked the stats sheet here, just in case you don't believe me. However, he has only broken 20 twice since then, including an overtime loss to Minnesota. He certainly is one of Illinois' best contributors and will probably get in the 15 point range against Michigan, but I highly doubt he's going to tear up a pretty good Michigan defense like he did against Ohio State.
This game is crucial if the Wolverines want to have a shot at winning the Big Ten and getting a good seed for the NCAA Tournament. I look for a big performance from Tim Hardaway, Jr., since he seems to match-up pretty well against the Illini. He had 15 points against them last time and I think he's going to hit his stride this time as well. Along with Hardaway, look for turnovers to be crucial element, since this should be a relatively low scoring game. If Michigan can control the ball well, they will have a great chance at winning.
I think Michigan will win this game primarily because Illinois is in collapse mode. Their coach is going to get fired and his team knows it. Even in comments from Weber you can tell he knows he's going to be out the door after the season. Losing 9/10 is unacceptable and this team has lost all of its drive and fire. Michigan, on the other hand, should be fired up to improve their road record and tournament prospects.
My Magic Pick Is...
Photo Credit: Thomas Beindit