For the first time in nearly a decade, Crisler Arena will welcome the top-ranked team in the country. For the Wolverines, they are hoping to have the same result as last time — a win.
Unanimous No. 1 Illinois makes its only appearance against Michigan in the regular season tonight, and the Wolverines (3-6 Big Ten, 12-11 overall) are hoping to end their current six-game losing streak by handing the Illini their first loss of the season. The last team to come to Ann Arbor ranked No. 1 was Duke on Dec. 13, 1997, and Michigan pulled off the upset, winning 81-73.
Illinois (9-0, 23-0) leads the Big Ten in eight of 19 statistical categories and is in the top three in 12 of them. Interestingly, Illinois does not lead the nation in any category. The Illini have been the dominant team in the Big Ten as of late, winning three of the past four regular-season titles. If they should manage to win the national championship this season, the Illini might make the jump from Big Ten power to national power.
“I think they’ve shown they’re as good as anybody over the last few years,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I think they would put themselves in the rankings of some of the great teams because of the way that they play — they’re unselfish, they pass extremely well, (and) they’re very efficient when you look at their stats in how they share the ball and shoot the ball.”
Illinois isn’t necessarily a deep team, but it features a starting lineup that has a threat at every position. All five starters are scoring in double figures, with senior guard Luther Head leading all players, scoring 16.6 points per game. Head also leads the Illini with 63 triples, tops in the Big Ten as well.
“Obviously, their perimeter is outstanding,” Amaker said. “I think their perimeter players are the ones that draw a lot of the attention and the headlines, and deservedly so. I think their three perimeter (players) are all really outstanding, ball-handling guards.”
The Illini have benefited from consistency this season, as Illinois coach Bruce Weber has used the same starting lineup all season long. As a result, Illinois has developed good team chemistry, and it has manifested in the form of an exceptional assist-to-turnover ratio — nearly 20 assists per game to just 11 turnovers.
“I think being unselfish is one of their trademarks,” Amaker said. “They share well, but, when you share, someone has to usually finish it off. Whether that’s inside or on the perimeter for a three-point shot, they get those assists. They have the ability to finish it in transition.”
Michigan, on the other hand, is coming off its worst ball-handing performance of the season. It had 29 turnovers at Ohio State last weekend. The Wolverines will need to take better care of the ball against Illinois’s backcourt or it will be a long night. Weber is nonetheless concerned about Michigan’s guards and their ability to set up its frontcourt.
“Their inside people are still pretty good players,” Weber said. “I think what’s happened is, because people can pressure their guards — who aren’t quite as comfortable as the players that are injured or out — you’re able to pressure them, and they’re not able to get it inside. So we have to make sure we continue to pressure and make it difficult on their guards and not let their play go through their post people.”
The Wolverines will need to have all their players play their best games of the season in order to remain competitive against Illinois. Amaker believes that, despite the six-game skid, the season is not yet lost.
“We’re still searching for ways to get better and to try and give ourselves a chance to win,” Amaker said. “That’s what we’re doing with different game plans and different structures of how we go into games. I don’t want to say it’s the thought of starting over, but I wouldn’t say that’s where we are with this team (right now).”