This Friday on ESPN, the Illinois Fighting Illini will square off against the Michigan Wolverines in the Quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Both teams sport identical 19-12 overall records and 9-9 Big Ten records.
The teams faced off once earlier this season, with the Wolverines traveling to Champaign on February 16th. The Illini won a 54-52 brick-fest that had me wanting to throw something through the television. Luckily for the television (and my dignity), I simply resorted to muttering obscenities. I had seen games like that far too often in my four years at Illinois, and they always had a way of getting me riled up.
Thankfully for Illinois, Michigan could not hit the broad side of a barn. They shot a dismal 2-18 from beyond the arc, including two final clanks in the waning moments that could have given them the victory. I think I heard a gigantic whoosh as all of Illini Nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Looking ahead to Friday, Michigan will be out for revenge. They are led by guards Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr (yes, that would be the son of former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway). As seen in the first match-up and typical of John Beilein coached teams, Michigan loves chucking threes. Illinois must actively defend the perimeter while also limiting the penetration of Morris and Hardaway Jr. This will be up to guards Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul, and D.J. Richardson.
Another staple of Beilein teams is the 1-3-1 zone defense. The Illini have had some problems against zones, and must find ways to attack its weaknesses. They cannot just pass the ball lazily around the perimeter. They must keep it moving quickly inside and out to set up open jump shots. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale also need to exploit their significant size advantage down low.
Although both squads have the same record, I feel like Illinois is the better team. If they come to play, I think they could dispatch of Michigan rather easily. Unfortunately, nothing has come easy for the Illini this season. While I still expect a win, it will probably be much too close for comfort.
Barring a monumental upset, an Illinois win means a third crack at the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes. The Illini lost the two previous match-ups, including one that got away in Champaign. I bet they would love another shot at the Buckeyes, especially considering a win could jump them up a seed or two in the NCAA Tournament.
However, beating Ohio State would be a tall order. In their last outing, the Buckeyes perfected the art of Charlie Sheen’s life motto (duh, winning!) in a 93-65 drubbing of then #10 Wisconsin. Illini Assassin Jon Diebler made it rain from the heavens, making 7 -8 from long distance. This came after a 10-12 performance against Penn State the game before. If my math is right, that’s an absurd 17-20 in his past two games.
The rest of the Buckeyes were on fire as well. Diebler’s teammates went 7-7 from long range, meaning the team shot a ridiculous 14-15 overall. This barrage prompted several of Gus Johnson’s patented HA-HA calls (and who doesn’t love those). The only negative of the day was when CBS broadcast several Buckeyes attempt to sing Miley Cyrus (Warning: this link is very disturbing and may make your ears bleed).
But I don’t want to completely jump the gun here. As I mentioned in my last post, Illinois cannot look ahead to Ohio State. That’s something fans can do. They must take care of business against the Wolverines, and then they can (most likely) get ready for the Buckeyes. I hope they can keep their focus, and get the job done.
About the Author
Written by Jason Patt
My name is Jason Patt and I recently graduated from the University of Illinois. I received a degree in Sports Management and also minored in Communication and Business. I am an avid follower of Illinois sports and also most major Chicago sports teams. Along with blogging about Illini basketball here, I'm an editor at Bulls 101.