Michigan looks for first outright Big Ten title since 1986 against Illinois

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 3, 2014

After clinching a share of the Big Ten regular season title with its win over Minnesota on Saturday, the Michigan men’s basketball team will head to Champaign on Tuesday for the chance to clinch the title outright.

With the opportunity to win what is arguably the toughest conference in the nation, the game against Illinois means a lot more than other games, especially to Michigan coach John Beilein.

“It’s pretty significant,” he said. “I’ve been coaching a long time … and in this league it’s valued so much more than others. So it is a high priority for us right now to just go in and beat Illinois.”

The Wolverines wouldn’t celebrate just yet with a share of the Big Ten title in hand, despite having the 1989 team in town this past weekend to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the program’s lone national championship,

“We want to celebrate once it’s clinched for good,” Beilein said.

Added fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan: “We’re not done. We’re not going to celebrate until this year’s over with.”

Though a major talking point this whole season has been how Michigan would adjust when sophomore forward Mitch McGary was lost indefinitely due to back surgery, the 12th-ranked Wolverines (13-3 Big Ten, 21-7 overall) have been able to right the ship. And according to Beilein, a major reason behind that is due to a lack of off the court distractions.

Unlike it past years, Beilein sees “no drama” for Michigan. With a united team thanks to great chemistry and a desire to achieve what the Wolverines were a win away from last year — a national championship — it was clear to Beilein, Morgan and redshirt junior forward Jon Horford that this team is one of the most composed teams either has been a part of.

Of course, a major reason the level of unity was even achieved is due in part to Michigan’s winning ways.

And if the Wolverines want to keep the distractions at a minimum even longer, a win against the Fighting Illini, a team “playing at their best,” according to Beilein will help keep that going.

After a mid-season eight-game losing-streak, Illinois (6-10, 17-12) has won four of its last six games and three in a row — the last coming in East Lansing on Saturday against Michigan State.

A common theme in the Fighting Illini’s recent success has been its defense. Allowing an average of 48 points per game over its last four games, Illinois has forced an average of 14 turnovers in the span.

“They are creating turnovers,” Beilein said. “That’s been a big thing. Michigan State is a really good passing team. They have a great plan, they’re hard to guard, and (Illinois) got in their passing lanes.”

Guard Rayvonte Rice, who had five steals in the upset win, demonstrated that knack against Michigan State. The junior leads the Fighting Illini in points (15.8), rebounds (6) and steals (1.6) per game. And according to Beilein, the guard’s defensive prowess is in “Rajon Rondo territory” from his days at Kentucky.

With the opportunity to clinch its first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 1986, the Wolverines will head back to the State Farm Center for the first time since winning there last season, catapulting them to their first top ranking since the 1992-93 season.

Though none of the current member of Michigan was alive when Glen Rice and company clinched the title, this team does have something in common with that squad, despite its youth.

“We’re young, but I think we’re pretty mature in what it takes to win,” Beilein said. “We have a maturity beyond our years.”