Cagers aiming to pop the Champaign open

By Charles Paradis

Daily Sports Writer

Before the season began, a trip to Illinois looked like a sure loss on Michigan’s schedule.

But then again, no one picked the Wolverines to run off 13 straight wins on their way to first place in the Big Ten.

The scorching Wolverines will try to take a stranglehold on the conference lead tonight when they head to Champaign to take on Illinois and super senior Brian Cook.

The power forward is leading the conference, averaging more than 20 points a game. Among active players in the Big Ten, Cook’s 1,456 points place him second in the conference – second only to Michigan’s LaVell Blanchard.

“(Cook’s) so consistent, and he’s playing as well as any senior in the country,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “The way he plays is very confident; he has a quiet confidence about him.”

Like Minnesota’s Rick Rickert, one of Cook’s strength’s is his versatility. Rickert dropped in 15 points on the Wolverines (6-0 Big Ten, 13-6 overall) last week, and Cook is capable of doing the same.

“He goes inside, he shoots the 3-point shot, he’s a good free throw shooter, he rebounds the ball. He’s a force,” Amaker said. “He has to be one of the players you have to think of as a candidate for Player of the Year. He’s playing that well on a great team.”

Cook’s ability to score in different ways makes him a very tough matchup for the Wolverines, who will likely check him with Blanchard or freshmen Graham Brown and Chris Hunter.

“I think that that (Rickert and Cook) are similar in that they can do a lot of things inside and outside,” Hunter said. “Michigan State had guys like that as well – I think that that will help (in defending Cook).”

The matchup between Blanchard and Cook will not be the only one on display tonight. Illinois (4-2, 14-3) and Michigan both sport impressive freshman point guards.

While fans in Ann Arbor are aware of Daniel Horton’s exploits, they may not know as much about the Illini’s Dee Brown.

Brown is averaging almost 13 points a game and leads the conference in assists. Of course, Horton has proven himself to be more than adequate at the point this season. The freshman played all 40 minutes of the game against the Spartans and has delivered whenever the Wolverines have needed him.

“Daniel is a scoring point guard and Dee’s more of a setup point guard,” Illinois coach Bill Self said. “We’re very familiar with Daniel. We tried to recruit him here, too. I happened to call him on his unofficial visit to Michigan, and he was telling me he had just committed.”

But while the flashy point guards will draw a lot of attention, tonight’s show is about Cook and Blanchard. The two have been the face of their respective programs and tonight’s matchup could be one of the great battles of the season. Both are versatile big men who can score a lot of points in a short time.

Michigan has had one big win on the road already this season against Ohio State and tonight’s contest will be just as difficult, if not more.

Michigan is sitting atop the conference with its perfect 6-0 record, with wins over Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota.

While the Wolverines find themselves leading the Big Ten, it has caused those who want to dethrone Michigan to gun for the Wolverines. But Michigan has survived these various attempts and remained perfect in the conference.

“When you look at some of the games we’ve played, that’s one of the satisfactions we’ve gotten out of winning certain games thus far,” Amaker said. “We’ve been in that position where we’ve taken some people’s best shots.

“That makes us feel very proud that we are in that position, and we are still standing.”

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