Michigan heads to Champaign with title hopes still alive

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Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 15 points in the first meeting between Illinois and Michigan earlier this year. Buy this photo

By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 29, 2012

All season long, players and coaches on the Michigan men’s basketball team have talked about winning championships. Until recently, the team’s shot at a conference title looked rosy.

In a disappointing senior night loss to Purdue, the Wolverines’ shot at winning at least a share of the Big Ten regular season crown for the first time since 1986 seemingly diminished. But with some help from Indiana — which upset front-runner Michigan State on Tuesday — No. 13 Michigan is back in the hunt.

Michigan coach John Beilein wasn’t watching the game on TV. He was at a recruit’s basketball game instead, but like most fans, he was intently following the action.

“It’s amazing what the phone can do,” Beilein said. “It’s sad that you can follow the whole game. I don’t need to be doing that this time of the year. I need to be just sitting watching high school games. … Your curiosity just gets the best of you.”

Even with the Hoosiers’ win, the Wolverines don’t control their own destiny — they need the Spartans to lose to Ohio State on Sunday — but Michigan must do what it can control to stay in the title hunt: Win the last two games on the schedule.

“We’re in the stretch run now, with a week to go,” Beilein said. “We do control part of that. We can’t control any other games, but we can control part of it.”

That quest begins Thursday night in Champaign, where the Wolverines (11-5 Big Ten, 21-8 overall) will go head-to-head with Illinois, a team fighting an entirely different battle.

After a hot 4-1 start in conference play, the Fighting Illini had dropped nine of their last 10 Big Ten games before finally stopping the skid with a win over Iowa earlier this week. Illinois currently sits outside of the bubble looking in, according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, and a loss Thursday would burst any hopes the Fighting Illini have of garnering an at-large bid.

“So many of these games, (Illinois has) been right there,” Beilein said. “They’re a very young team. … Those young guys are learning on the fly in the best league in the country, so they’re getting better.”

Michigan knocked off Illinois when the two teams squared off in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, primarily because Fighting Illini sophomore forward Meyers Leonard was held in check. The big man, who averages more than 13 points and eight rebounds per game, was held to just five points, despite picking up 12 rebounds.

The game in Assembly Hall could come down to how well the Wolverines contain Leonard, especially on the offensive glass.

“He’s probably going to (have) a double-digit rebound game almost every game he’s in,” Beilein said. “We’ve got to keep the offensive ones from getting his way. He just gets points because he plays with great length. A lot of guys have length, they just don’t use it. He really uses his length.”

After each of its previous seven losses, Michigan has battled back to win the ensuing game. To do so on Thursday, the Wolverines may need to rely on two talented underclassmen currently struggling to score.

In the previous win over the Fighting Illini (6-10, 17-12), Michigan was helped on the offensive end by four double-digit scorers, led by sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 15 points.

Hardaway Jr. attempted just three 3-pointers in the game, making two of them, in one of his steadiest games in conference play. Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz also chipped in — he also connected on 2-of-3 from long range, en route to a 13-point effort.

It seemed that the sophomores had broken out of nearly conference-long slumps, but both struggled in the loss to the Boilermakers, indicating that perhaps neither is fully out of their slump.

With post-season play just around the corner — the Big Ten Tournament kicks off next week — Michigan will need Smotrycz and Hardaway Jr. to come alive for the final push.

If the Wolverines can come up with wins in Champaign and at Penn State on Sunday to close the regular season, and with the help of good fortune from the Buckeyes, a new addition could find its way to the rafters inside Crisler Center.

“We know there’s a chance,” Beilein said. “Given the fact that we’re the No. 1 RPI league, we’re the No. 1 Sagarin league — would you like to win a conference championship outright? Yeah.

“But if you’re co-champs, or tri-champs or quad-champs, I don’t care. We’re champs, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.”