Fighting Illini’s tournament hopes on life support, need win against Michigan


trey-burke

After a 1-9 stretch that included losses at Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, a torrent of criticism directed at Bruce Weber and a crying Meyers Leonard, Illinois managed to revive their at-large hopes with an 11-point win over Iowa on Sunday. It was their first double digit win since early in the preconference.

Beating the Hawkeyes likely won’t matter to the selection committee unless the Fighting Illini can turn around and upset the Wolverines on Thursday.

Michigan enters this Thursday matchup at Assembly Hall looking to right the ship after suffering a 14-point beatdown at home against Purdue. Freshman point guard Trey Burke struggled, as did nearly everybody else. The Wolverines need to prove that Saturday night’s result was a blip, and not an indication of bigger problems.

Although this isn’t a must-win for the Maize and Blue—as is the case for the Illini—losing two straight against two inferior opponents would be a bad sign heading into the Big Ten tournament next weekend.

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John Beilein’s squad can kill the Illini’s tournament hopes by picking up this win on the road. The question is, does Illinois want to win this game? Or has Weber already mailed it in this season?

Edge in the frontcourt: Illinois

Inconsistent, immature, cry-baby (ok, I’m done now). Those are some of the labels that have been tossed in the direction of the sophomore big man Meyers Leonard this season.

Yet, one thing is certain: Leonard has talent, like NBA lottery-pick talent. Leonard averages 13.4 points and just over eight rebounds per game. He’s also developed into one of the nation’s best passing big men.

Michigan forward Jordan Morgan forced Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger into an ugly performance in the Wolverines’ upset over the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor. It may take a similar effort on defense to keep Leonard in check on Thursday.

Edge in the backcourt: Michigan

Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have the potential to be one of the best scoring tandems in the nation. But for some odd reason, they seem disengaged on certain nights.

Of course, Paul could drop 40 out of nowhere, but to win in this league, you need consistency; and the Illini’s backcourt doesn’t have it this season. BP3 commits way too many turnovers and the Illini point guard play has been weak this season.

Meanwhile, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are quietly putting together impressive seasons for the Wolverines. They both struggled against Purdue’s tenacious defense on Saturday, but expect them to bounce back at Assembly Hall.

Key player for Michigan: Trey Burke

Prior to its slip-up against the Boilermakers on Saturday, Michigan had won five of six, two of which came against Indiana and Ohio State.

A large part of the reason for that success was the play of Burke, the precocious freshman who continues to garner momentum for the Big Ten freshman of the year award.

The Boilermakers forced him into a 4-12 shooting performance. The result: Michigan struggled mightily. Bluntly stated, the Wolverines need Burke to play well in order for them to have success.

Key Player for Illinois: Bruce Weber

This is a bit of a surprise, but Weber will be the most important person on the floor for the Illini Thursday night.

If Illinois is motivated, they are one of the top teams in this league. The Illini have impressive wins over Ohio State, Michigan State, and Gonzaga. Those victories were by no mistake; this team has talent.

It’s up to Weber to make sure that that talent is motivated enough to get a much-needed win Thursday night.

Prediction

Michigan has been better away from home as of late, but those early road woes count for something, right? The Wolverines need a win to ensure that the Purdue loss was a fluke.

But the Illini need a win in order to keep their at-large profile on life support. A loss would give Weber’s squad a spot in the NIT, which would be a disaster for a team whose coach is already halfway out the door.

I tend to side with desperate home teams, especially in this conference.

Score Illinois 55, Michigan 51

Chris Johnson is a sports writer for The Daily Northwestern. He is also the Michigan beat writer for bigtenorbust.com. Follow him @chrisdjohnsonn. contact: christopherjohnson2015@u.northwestern.edu

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