CHAMPAIGN Wrong place, wrong time.
Things have been going well for the Wolverines so far this Big Ten season. Sure, they dropped a tough game against Minnesota last Wednesday, but their 2-1 conference record going into Saturday”s game against Illinois was as good as anybody ever expected it to be.
But things for Illinois were not going so well. After two straight road losses (at Wisconsin and Purdue), Illinois coach Bill Self was questioning his team”s intensity, and the Illini found themselves in an unusual position entering their return home: Looking up at the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings.
Illinois which was picked by some in the preseason as the premier team in the country and a likely Final Four contender was in danger of letting its season slip away. The return home to the intimate confines of Assembly Hall needed to reinvigorate the team.
“I think the intensity definitely picks up (when the team returns home),” Self said before Saturday”s game. “I think the crowds are worth quite a bit to home teams. I think that (the home games) are of more importance and I think our guys will understand the value of playing in these games at home.”
His team did not disappoint entirely. While the Illini were outrebounded by the smaller Wolverines, they ran their offense to near-perfection. A barrage of alley-oops and slam dunks helped the Assembly Hall crowd fuel the fire that extinguished Michigan”s winning Big Ten record.
Illinois has now won 26 straight games in Champaign. In short, Saturday”s game pitted one of the nation”s elite programs returning home to regain its confidence against a team that had been playing above expectations. It was an unfortunate circumstance for the Wolverines.
Self was hesitant to call the game a “must win,” but with a dangerous Iowa squad looming this week for Illinois, it is difficult to imagine what the folks in Champaign would be saying about the team had it not handled Michigan.
“This is a team that everybody thought was going to possibly be a Big Ten Tournament champion or possibly a Final Four team,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “And I think you can see some of the glimpses for why people have those particular predictions for this ball club.”
Illinois shot a season-high (and Assembly Hall record) 68 percent from the field. Its post players helped move the ball around the court with a calculated fluidity that made the Wolverines” defense appear disorganized.
The Illini were playing without two of their best players, forwards Lucas Johnson and Damir Krupalija. When they return (which should happen within the next couple weeks), Illinois will likely make a full recovery from its recent fall from the top.
“It didn”t help that we caught them at this time,” Amaker said. “I think they showed their character today. I think they showed that they could rally and put things back together.”