You never know which Illinois you’re going to get.
Will it be the Illinois that scored 79 points against a normally stingy Ohio State defense on Jan. 10? Or will it be the Illinois that scored just 52 in a loss to Big Ten bottom-dweller Penn State the next game?
This Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team welcomes the Fighting Illini to Crisler Center for their first matchup of the season, and the outcome may very well be decided by which Illinois team comes to play.
But as streaky as the Fighting Illini (5-6 Big Ten, 16-8 overall) have been this season, they do have a constant in junior guard Brandon Paul, who has been one of the most reliable backcourt players in the Big Ten this season. His shooting hasn’t been the most efficient, knocking down just 39 percent of his shots from the field, but he leads his team in scoring and typically gets the ball in key situations.
Against the Buckeyes last month, Paul tallied an epic 43 points on 8-of-10 shooting from behind the arc despite being constantly pressured on the perimeter. Whoever guards him on Sunday — probably senior guard Stu Douglass — will be forced to play him tight for 40 minutes of basketball.
Michigan (8-4, 18-7) will also have a challenge under the basket: limiting sophomore behemoth Meyers Leonard. The seven-footer is Illinois’ second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, so Wolverine sophomore forward Jordan Morgan will have his hands full.
Michigan coach John Beilein will likely play a good deal of zone defense to limit the production of Leonard and the Illinois frontcourt. But the Fighting Illini are not shy from long range, so the Wolverines will have to find a balance between locking down the shooters and closing lanes to the basket.
On the offensive end, Michigan could get a big boost if sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. starts knocking down his shots. Though he is still the team’s leading scorer, edging freshman point guard Trey Burke by a fraction of a point per game, he slipped under 20-percent shooting from 3-point range after his 0-for-7 performance at Nebraska on Wednesday.
With six games left in the regular season, the Wolverines would love to see Hardaway Jr. turn it on down the stretch.
NOVAK NONCHALANT ABOUT 1,000: With a 3-pointer early in Wednesday’s win, senior guard Zack Novak became the 45th Wolverine to reach the 1,000-point milestone. With well over 500 career rebounds, he became the 28th player in program history to reach both 1,000 points and 500 boards.
Michigan coach John Beilein took a moment during his postgame press conference to joke at the expense of his three-time captain.
“It’s probably been the steadiest 1,000 points ever,” Beilein said, letting out a laugh. “If you look at him, he probably averages seven or eight points a game for four consecutive years. Who does that? But he does that.”
But the coach took a few moments to reflect on the magnitude of Novak’s accomplishment, given where the senior was four years ago. The Chesterton, Ind. native — a signee in Beilein’s first recruiting class at Michigan — had no Division-I offers before the Wolverines finally extended him a scholarship.
“So few young men get 1,000 points,” Beilein said. “They’ve got to have great perseverance and the opportunity to play when they’re young.
“He’s wonderful to coach. And if he’s got a thousand points, he’s also got a million points just in leadership that he shows over time.”
The milestone, however, didn’t faze Novak. He even shrugged off compliments from teammates and coaches, prompting Beilein to call him a “very interesting young man” for not caring about his achievement.
To Novak, the feat just wasn’t very impressive.
“Now, if I got 2,000 points,” he remarked to one team official, “that’d be something.”
MATT MADE A 3: Late in the second half against Nebraska, junior guard Matt Vogrich knocked down a 3-pointer — his first since the game on Jan. 11 against Northwestern — sparking a celebration on the bench.
But he wasn’t finished. In the next few minutes, he sunk two more. It was just the second time this season — and first time since December — that he connected on three 3-pointers.
“Coach (Beilein) said something during a timeout,” Vogrich said. “He said, ‘I got a feeling Matt’s going to make one here.’
“I hit the first one down and the rim just seems to grow. I’ve been struggling from three this year, so it just feels good to knock three down.”
After Vogrich’s first make, the players on the bench erupted in the otherwise quiet Bob Devaney Center. The festive bench — having already sealed the victory — continued to celebrate with each make. Hardaway Jr. was the ringleader, hollering and waving a towel above his head.
“If I’m not knocking down shots, that doesn’t mean I’m holding my head down and just saying, ‘Oh, he’s making shots, why can’t I?’ ” Hardaway Jr. said. “Cheer your teammates on, that’s what they’re there for.”
And though he was on the floor, Vogrich wasn’t oblivious to what was going on off the court amid his shooting spree.
“We all have each other’s back all the time,” Vogrich said. “Tim’s struggling a little bit — everybody’s got his back. I was struggling — everybody’s got my back. It’s the reason why we win.”
To continue to win, Michigan will need Vogrich’s scoring off the bench to stretch defenses. Now, the junior just hopes that his shooting skid is over.
“There were games where we’ve been hitting everything and I’m 0-for-1 or I’m 0-for-2,” Vogrich said. “It was just big for me to see that first one go in. That just really helped me a lot and the rim seems to grow when you knock a few down. Hopefully I can carry this momentum forward into Illinois.”