Home > Illinois basketball > Red-hot Michigan looks to overtake Illini in Big Ten, on the bubble

Red-hot Michigan looks to overtake Illini in Big Ten, on the bubble

Hard to fathom that Michigan could take a half-game lead on Illinois in the Big Ten standings tonight.

But if the Wolverines (16-10, 6-7 Big Ten) , winners in five of six games, can pull off the upset of the Illini (16-9, 6-6) at Assembly Hall – upset may not be a strong enough term given Michigan’s 15-year losing streak in Champaign – they’ll be in the top half of the Big Ten standings and immediately on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The long-term arrow for once is pointed up for fourth-year Michigan coach John Beilein’s program.

Beilein has ridden his underclassmen because he’s had no other choice. Starters Zack Novak and Stu Douglass – both juniors – are the only upperclassmen. Along with sophomore Darius Morris, they’re the only players to come into the season with significant experience.

But Beilein’s babes weathered the early Big Ten growing pains before hitting a huge growth spurt.

“My concern was how do they handle all the bumps along the way when you’re trying to play in one of the better years in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “I’m encouraged by it. I know that we still have a lot more work to do to just continue to improve this last month of the season. But I love going to practice everyday.”

Morris – whose scoring average (15.4) is up to 11 points from last year – can make an argument as the second best point guard in the Big Ten, behind Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. His 6.8 assists per game tops the Big Ten and spark Beilein’s perimeter-oriented five-out motion offense.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Morris is one of the Big Ten’s most improved players, along with Penn State’s Jeff Brooks and Purdue’s Ryne Smith.

 “He’s a little bit like (Phoenix Suns point guard Steve) Nash, I guess. He’s getting in there. He’s wheeling and dealing.”

Reigning Big Ten freshman of the week Tim Hardaway Jr. has taken over Manny Harris’ scoring role as of late, averaging 17.1 points in his last seven games including a career-high 26 points in a win over Indiana on Sunday. Redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan, a project big man, also is gaining consistency.

Beilein said a summer tour of Europe has helped his squad develop quicker than expected.

“They have worked hard since August 1,” Beilein said. “I do make a comparison with them. You studied all year, you attended every class, you went to every study hall and now  the exam is two weeks away. Are you going to let down now after all that? They really keep their eye on the prize right now.

“And the prize really is just be the best we can be. Just work hard every day in practice, work hard in every scouting report, every training table, eat right: all those things you need to do to to be in position to win some of these remaining games.”

Michigan still faces a tough road – games at Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota and home games against Wisconsin and Michigan State – to its second NCAA Tournament appearance of the century.

But Beilein sounds less fearful and more welcoming of the added pressure this late in the season.

“What I do like is that if we were not in a BCS league, we would not have this opportunity to play four of our last five games against top-50 teams,” Beilein said. “The opportunity will be there. They’re difficult opportunities. They’re very challenging. But we’ll just go play and maybe we can knock two or three teams off.”

Must-win for Illini

Illinois (16-9, 3-3 Big Ten) is fighting for its own tournament life. With road games against Michigan State, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Purdue, Michigan is the first of three must-win home games remaining on the schedule.

Weber declined to offer a magic number of wins to clinch a tournament bid.

“We got to win games,” Weber said. “We got to win Wednesday night. I know our schedule rating is pretty good. I know our power rating is pretty good at this point, but you got to finish strong. … We were 9-3 (Big Ten) at this point last year and didn’t get in. So, there’s a lot of things that can happen.”

Senior salute

Weber has been criticized for publicly calling out his players. Characteristics, like honesty, are under a microscope when your team is on the NCAA bubble. But during Tuesday’s press conference, Weber supported his struggling seniors.

“They have a great opportunity in front of them,” Weber said. “Obviously, the seniors haven’t played as well as I think all of them have hoped but they still have something there in front of them that they can have a great finish. I believe in them. I think they’re going to make a push here and get going and make a nice legacy here for themselves and for our program.”

After a year and a half of disappointment, what makes him think the seniors will turn the corner?

“I think they want it,” Weber said. “ I think they care. That’s the most important thing. It’s not that they don’t care. …They care. They love the program. They’ve been dedicated to the program. They just haven’t played well and different ones at different times. (It’s) my hopes and wishes that they have a great finish here.”

Demetri Watch

“I think he’s played better in practice,” Weber said of senior Demetri McCamey, who totaled four points against Purdue after scoring 31 points the previous two games. “When he’s been there, he’s been focused and put a good effort. He’s been around us talking. …It definitely means something to him.”

Be like Mike … Davis?

Believe it or not, Weber has used Mike Davis as a reference of the effort he wants to see from McCamey and fellow senior Mike Tisdale. Often the posterboy of inconsistent energy, Davis has been the most consistent Illini during the recent rough patch, averaging 14.1 points and 7.7 rebounds during the last seven games.

“Mike has been one guy that has over the last three weeks, it’s been the one thing he’s made a commitment to is play hard,” Weber said. “Now, he hasn’t played perfect but he’s tried to play hard and focus on rebounds and running the court and guarding better. And I think it’s helped him.”

Paul clicking

With McCamey struggling, sophomore Brandon Paul has been the best initiator of the Illini offense. While he still forces some shots and passes, Paul’s basketball IQ is gradually rising.

He’s the team’s second best ballhandler and has realized that he’s at his best when attacking the basket. Of his 56 points over the last three games, 22 have come at the free-throw line.

“I think (for) Brandon, the light has gone on,” Weber said. “It happens with every kid at a different time. He comes in the office, he watches film, he’s been extra shooting. There’s a sense of, I don’t know if you want to use maturity or whatever, but he’s starting to really play better basketball.”

Prediction

Illinois 69, Michigan 64

Michigan is clicking and hitting its shots. The opposite is true for an Illini squad which has players questioning each other’s effort. But the Illini are the superior team physically and athletically. Illinois’ length – three of Sunday’s starters top 6-foot-9 – should bother a Wolverines starting lineup that features one player taller than 6-foot-5 and, theoretically, should help the home team control the boards. But even a gimme-win one month ago now is hard to predict this Illini season.

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy atjeremy@myconnectfm.com.

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