It will be 364 days between trips to Champaign for the Michigan basketball team. Last year the Wolverines fell by 29 points to the eventual Big Ten regular season co-champions as Michigan shot a dismal 13-for-47 from the field and was dominated down low by Illinois” big men, particularly Sergio McClain. McClain is gone, but Illinois” size is not.
The Wolverines return to Assembly Hall tomorrow. But this time there may be more cause for optimism from the Michigan camp. The Wolverines are 2-1 in the Big Ten (6-6 overall) and have shown great promise (if not success) in each of their conference games. The Illini, on the other hand, are reeling from two straight Big Ten road losses, and seem to be lacking physically.
“When things don”t go right, we”re not very tough,” Illinois coach Bill Self said. “I used to work with (former Oklahoma State) coach (Eddie) Sutton, and he used to say that it takes no courage to be a good player when things are going well.”
On Wednesday night the Illini were outplayed by Purdue (a team Michigan has beaten). The Boilermakers found their way to the foul line 46 times, beating the Illini with a patience down low that they did not show against Michigan. If the unranked Wolverines are to make a statement tomorrow by defeating their first ranked team of the season, they will need to have similar success in the post against the larger Illini.
Last year, both center Chris Young and departed forward Josh Asselin were ineffective against the Illini, fouling out after frustratingly meager showings. Michigan will need help on the glass from junior LaVell Blanchard, who leads the team with 7.3 rebounds per game. Against Minnesota (another team which is much larger than Michigan) freshman Chuck Bailey showed why coaches are hesitant to play freshmen (especially big men) in the Big Ten. He was out-muscled and out-rebounded. Bailey will need to provide considerably more help to Young tomorrow.
Self is primarily concerned with guarding swingmen Blanchard and sophomore Bernard Robinson, who has led the Wolverines in scoring in each of the last three games.
“Blanchard and Robinson are as athletic as any guys out there. Period,” Self said. “Here”s a situation where you have to play against a 6-foot-7 four man (Blanchard) who is as good a perimeter player as anyone out there, so it”s definitely a problem for us.”
Illinois is struggling. Meanwhile, Michigan is still riding its positive momentum, despite the Minnesota loss. This year the Wolverines are still undersized and must play larger than they actually are if they are to notch their first quality win, and help perpetuate Illinois” downward spiral.