The Michigan men’s basketball team may have been pleased with its “signature win” over the weekend. But without a victory tonight, the Wolverines’ autograph will likely fade into obscurity.
Michigan travels to Champaign for a 9 p.m. tip off this evening against Illinois in another do-or-die scenario.
The Wolverines may be without its captain, Lester Abram. His status is uncertain after he was arrested Monday morning for driving with a suspended license.
Michigan has been in must-win mode to keep its fragile Tournament hopes alive. Since their Jan. 31 loss to Iowa, the Wolverines are 2-1, dropping the lone road game of the stretch to Michigan State.
Tonight is Michigan’s last chance to notch a quality win away from Crisler Arena this season.
“We have to get one on the road,” junior Ron Coleman said. “We know how tough it is in the Big Ten on the road, and we have to go down to Illinois with the mindset that we’re on a mission and that we have to go down there and try to get something done.”
Even though the Wolverines have been tame away from Crisler all year (1-5 Big Ten, 2-7 overall), this evening’s game won’t be as intimidating as previous road contests. Michigan has already faced the Illini this season, defeating them on Jan. 3, 71-61, in Ann Arbor.
To add injury to insult, the Illini have had an entire week of distractions, highlighted by last Monday’s car accident involving players Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell.
Both will miss the game, but Carlwell may return for the Big Ten tournament. Smith, on the other hand, mutually agreed with Illinois coach Bruce Weber to sit out the rest of the season. As of yesterday, he’ll face charges for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident stemming from the incident.
Illinois also has had to deal with the firestorm following the announcement that its longtime mascot, Chief Illiniwek, will be retired due to pressure from the NCAA. Tonight will be his last performance.
But the Illini have won six of their last eight and, despite all the off-the-court problems, are still in the race for an at-large tournament bid.
“Illinois is that much better now just like I think we’re better now than when we played them (in January),” sophomore Jerret Smith said. “We’re going into their environment knowing that they’ve gotten better, and we know we have to get better to compete.”
Michigan’s biggest question heading into the game is the starting lineup. Against Indiana, coach Tommy Amaker replaced Coleman and senior Courtney Sims with Smith and freshman Ekpe Udoh. But Michigan coach Tommy Amaker was mum on the subject.
“We always consider different options,” Amaker said. “We’re always looking to see what advantage we can have for ourselves. We’re not sure about Wednesday, but we’re certainly going to look at everything that we feel can possibly help us.”
The change sparked the Wolverines and Sims, who scored 13 points and pulled down five rebounds off the bench.
Even though Sims isn’t used to a reserve role, the Boston native didn’t seem opposed to the idea.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Sims said. “I don’t think anybody would say they want to come off the bench. If you’re competitive, you want to play. . But whatever it takes to win, it doesn’t matter. If it means (the team) gets a spark like in the last game . then that’s what it takes.”
A win would put the Wolverines one game over .500 in Big Ten play and one win closer to tournament consideration.
If Michigan can continue winning its own personal tournament – a series of win-or-go-home games – it will have another big signature.
That of a NCAA Tournament-bound team.
Note: Tonight’s game will be broadcast on ESPNU, which is only available to Direct-TV owners.