Tuesday night brings the game that will likely decide the Big Ten regular season title as the #4 Illinois Fighting Illini will visit the #2 Michigan Wolverines.
It’s a battle of the first and second place teams in the Big Ten, the deepest and toughest conference in college basketball top to bottom. With the regular season set to conclude at week’s end, this is as big as it gets when it comes to a conference game. Beyond the regular season trophy, there is major postseason seeding implications on the line here.
#4 Illinois Fighting Illini at #2 Michigan Wolverines FYIs
Tip/TV: 6pm cst, ESPN (Dan Shulman & Jay Bilas)
Records: Michigan 18-1 (13-1) Illinois 18-6 (14-4)
All-time Series: Illini lead 89-85, and they have won the last two. The last meeting came Jan 25, 2020 in Ann Arbor, with the road side emerging victorious 64-62. Michigan leads the series in Ann Arbor 52-30
Fun Fact: Illinois has eight Quad 1 wins, tied with Michigan for most in the NCAA.
Stat Sheet: Illinois is 6-40 all-time against teams ranked in the top 2 of the AP poll, and has never beaten a top two team o the road.
U of M might be a traditional “football school,” but as the Jim Harbaugh hire has proved to be more sizzle than steak, and Juwan Howard picking up where John Beilein left off, it’s a basketball school now for sure.
Wolverines football hasn’t been nationally relevant in a long time while Go Blue hoops has had two Final Four appearances (both of which ended as national runner-up) in the 2010s and they enter this game looking up at just one team, Gonzaga, in the polls.
Howard still thinks they haven’t hit their ceiling though.
“We look at it like there’s room for improvement,” said the UM head man after leading his team to its seventh straight win, an absolute demolishing of Indiana on Saturday.
“Our guys have that kind of growth mindset, ‘What can we do better?’ I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as playing a perfect game, [but] one possession at a time, competing for 40 minutes, from start to finish, that’s been our mindset going into ballgames.”
Part of what makes Michigan such a tough out is their depth and versatility. They have six guys who average over 8ppg, led by Hunter Dickinson, their leading scorer and rebounder. Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner have made big steps forward this season to comprise Michigan’s big three.
The last time these two teams met in a game this big, it was the 1989 Final Four.
Their best player, Ayo Dosunmu, is a leading national player of the year candidate. He’s “day to day” with what has officially been called “a facial injury,” the severity of which is unknown. It seems like more is going on with the issue than just a broken nose, and he’s doubtful for this one.
Also unclear is the question of “can he play?” vs “should he play?”
Both teams are leading contenders for #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and obviously the big dance is what matters, much more so than this game, the conference race or even the Big Ten tournament next week.
So it’s a tricky situation for head coach Brad Underwood, who knows that Illinois needs to keep winning in order to stay on the top seed line. Unless Illinois wins here and again at Ohio State on Saturday, we’ll have this dilemma again next week in the conference tourney.
With Dosunmu out (and that point spread is a clear indicator he will be), other players must step up and fill the void, and Andre Curbelo is one guy who has really done that. Curbelo averaged 13.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 53.6% from the field and 80% from the free throw line over three games last week. In doing so he claimed the Big Ten freshman of the week award.
“I’m here for the challenge,” Curbelo said Monday in regards to this game, “and it’s definitely going to be a great challenge for everyone.”
Underwood said that Michigan is the same caliber of Gonzaga and Baylor, both of whom he’s seen live.
Those are the two teams that have had a stranglehold on the top two spots in the polls, until Michigan finally broke through today. He also said that his team and his opponent are very similar, not so much in the stuff that they run, but in their systems.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Tribune and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.