Wolverines prepare to battle new-look Illinois on Saturday

Friday, January 5, 2018 - 5:54pm

Junior forward Moritz Wagner has another chance to bounce back from his injury against Illinois.

Junior forward Moritz Wagner has another chance to bounce back from his injury against Illinois. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

 

John Beilein and Brad Underwood have met on the hardwood before — a 92-91 NCAA Tournament victory for Michigan over Oklahoma State last season.

Still, Beilein didn’t particularly like it.

“We faced Brad last year when he was at Oklahoma State and you could see we couldn’t stop them at all,” Beilein said. “… As soon as you fall asleep, they’ll get you.”

One day after the matchup, Underwood was introduced as the next head coach for a reeling Illinois team, and that punchy, non-stop offense is now a part of the Big Ten for the foreseeable future.

The Fighting Illini (0-3 Big Ten, 10-6 overall) bare a resemblance to the 2016-17 Cowboys, but don’t nearly have the same pedigree in offensive efficiency. Rather, Illinois’ most consistent offensive threat come from its starting big men, Michael Finke and Leron Black. The duo comprises two of the team’s three double-digit scorers and is also the team’s leading rebounders. Finke, more so than Black, can space the floor as a 3-point threat.

“How their bigs work together — how Finke picks and pops, how Black can get to the rim in different ways and how they face us will be a great challenge,” said sophomore center Jon Teske.

While the Fighting Illini are not the most formidable foe the Wolverines (2-1, 13-3) have faced this year, the frontcourt matchup could prove to be a useful barometer to measure the progress of freshman forward Isaiah Livers and junior forward Moritz Wagner.

Livers displayed newfound confidence at Iowa on Tuesday, where he shot 5-for-6 from the field for a career-high 13 points, even shushing the crowd after one of his made triples. His outburst showed promising signs that Livers can replace Duncan Robinson at the ‘4’ when Robinson gets outmatched defensively.

Wagner, on the other hand, is looking to prove that he is back at full strength. In the junior’s previous two games back from a foot injury, he has looked out of sorts on both ends of the floor.

“I showed him a video, he caught a rebound the other day when he caught the rebound and one foot was up here,” Beilein said, raising his leg over his waist and flailing his arms over his head. “It was actually his bad foot that was down. … I just want him to be strong and solid with the ball and not be as — he’s got a lot of finesse to his game — sometimes you’ve gotta just be really strong.

“.. You could see in the Iowa game he’s still not right. That’s okay, he’ll get right.”

Regardless of Michigan’s injuries and inquiries, Illinois is simply not effective enough on offense compared to the Wolverines. If the Fighting Illini can overcome Michigan, it would surely be an upset that shakes up the conference standings.

To make any of that a reality for Illinois, though, it will have to capitalize on what it does best: Forcing turnovers.

“This is a very, very aggressive Illinois defense, turning people over at sixth in the country,” Beilein noted. “That’s gonna be a great challenge. … The contrast that you have — we don’t really turn it over, they make people turn it over.”