Friday, February 10, 2012

Illinois Preview: The Giant of Illinois

General Outlook 
After dispatching an inept Huskers team, a win at home against the Illini would serve as a solid momentum-creator--if you believe in things like that--to carry Michigan through the somewhat weak back end of the schedule.

The Illini come in at 16-8 (5-6), and to say that they are reeling is putting it lightly. The S.S. Weber is currently taking on water and all aboard are fighting for spots on one of the lifeboats. Unfortunately, the Illini have not done a good job at this, as every time they think they have a chance to get on, some shameless ruffian--PSU, Minnesota, Wisconsin--pushes them aside most boorishly. They have lost 5 of their last 6, the one win coming in the The Adventures of Pluto Nash of basketball games, a 42-41 "win" against the Spartans last week. Otherwise, the Illini have been herpin' and derpin' after getting off to a solid 4-1 start in the conference (a start which included the premier performance of the Big Ten season, Brandon PAWWWLLLLL's MJ impression against the Buckeyes).

The Illini played your standard non-conference schedule, losing their two biggest tests (Mizzou, UNLV) and beating a decent Gonzaga team and a mediocre Maryland squad. However, they have been scuffling in the last month or so, and they really needed to win at Indiana last night. Illinois will be in desperation mode, as losing would force them to finish 4-2 in their last 6 games if they want to finish .500 in the conference. Those last 6 games include tilts against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan, so the Illini will likely call upon all the grit reserves they have in order to win in Ann Arbor to obviate having to do that.

The aforementioned notwithstanding, losing this game would be a pretty huge disappointment but not a killer, as Michigan is in a pretty good spot right now.

Bruce Weber, looking confused/probably about 
to give some less than useful advice

The Offense 
Knowing that the Illini have lost 5 of 6, you could assume that there have been some defensive issues. The Illini have given up 70+ in their last two outings against Northwestern and IU--74 and 84 respectively--which bodes well for Michigan, as there are some philosophical similarities between those teams' offensive attacks and Michigan's.

The Illini are giving up 62.2 points per game (it went up by almost a whole point after IU dropped 84 on them), which isn't too bad but isn't reflective of their play of late, minus the all-around derpfest that was the MSU game. Although the defense has been had in its last two outings, it has mostly not been the major culprit in Illinois' downfall. In fact, the defense has been pretty solid; it all starts from the inside with sophomore 7-footer Meyers Leonard.

Coming into the Indiana game, the Illini were third best in the conference in blocks and are giving up a solid 46.8% from 2. Leonard is averaging about a pair of blocks a game, but the 7-footer certainly alters his fair share of shots in addition to those blocks. While those who enter the lane should be wary of Leonard's shot-blocking ability-like Dante and Virgil upon entering Hell, abandon all hope ye who enter here--attacking and getting him in foul trouble is a pretty easy way of mitigating his presence. Getting him out of the paint as much as possible via the pick and roll will also be key, although he is certainly athletic enough to keep up with Morgan on the roll.

Michigan will finally have one of these next year (see: McGary, Mitch)

Spearheaded by Leonard's height, the Illini are rebounding 69% of opponents' misses, which puts them at 5th best in the conference, which actually isn't as good as I expected, but, then again, they are 5-6 in Big Ten play. As long as Leonard is on the floor, I doubt Michigan gets too many second chances, but if Michigan can get him in foul trouble then there could be a few opportunities.

Otherwise, the rest of the lineup isn't too physically imposing. Joseph Bertrand, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Tracy Abrams are 6'5'', 6'4'', 6'3'' and 6'1'' respectively. Another piece of good news: Illinois is pretty turrible at defending the three, which they are allowing at a 36.3% rate, a higher clip than our own maligned 3-point D. The Wildcats and Hoosiers shot a combined 15/32 from 3 against the Illini in their last 2 games, good for 47%. The looks will be there, Michigan will just has to hit them. Easier said than done, as we know.

The Defense 
Illinois's offensive attack has been somewhat of a tire fire at times. What I'm about to say is perhaps more insulting than any statistical evidence I will impart to you, but there are moments when this Illinois team reminds me of one of Amaker's Horton-led teams (if those teams were given a 7-footer like Leonard). The Illini turn the ball over with alacrity; in conference play, the Illini have put up a ghastly TO% of 22.2%, which is only better than Nebraska. Illinois, like those Horton teams, seems to depend on those supernova-type performances from Paul that Horton was wont to have from time to time. 

Illinois' offense tends to be fairly self-destructive 

Even the casual fan knows about Brandon Paul after his 43-point explosion against the Buckeyes; he averages a cool 15 ppg. However, his eFG% is even lower than THJ's; at 48.6%, he is 37th in the conference. After Paul, Leonard and D.J. Richardson are the other two double digit scorers (13.3 and 12.2 ppg respectively), both better in eFG% than Paul, with Leonard checking in in the top 10 of all B1G players. With that said, the good news for Michigan is two-fold. 

  • While Leonard is, like Zeller, a skyscraper of a human being, he is not nearly as polished. He doesn't have the same smoothness about his game that Zeller has, and his points will mostly come from the FT line (only Paul has more FTA on the Illini roster than him) and general gritting around near the basket. He's going to be a first-round pick based simply on his defensive abilities and athletic ability that is rare for a guy of his height, but, still, his offensive game is fairly raw. 
  • Second, the Illini don't seem to shoot the 3 all that well. Even Paul only shoots 34.5% from 3 on the second-most attempts, behind D.J. Richardson's team-leading 138 attempts. Richardson is shooting a team-high (of those with a relevant sample size, that is) 38.4%. Obviously, this means he is the guy to watch from outside. Sam Maniscalco is the third most eager 3-point gunner, but he shoots a pretty awful 26.6%; he can shoot as much as he wants. Overall, though, they don't attempt too many (6 attempts per game). 

This is an offensive attack that has looked downright dysfunctional at times (8th in ppg in conference play). They are mediocre from 3, and their inside presence isn't exactly Olajuwon when it comes to making a post move. If Stu plays the type of defense he has been playing, odds are Paul won't have a good enough game to propel the Illini to an upset.

Who/What To Watch

  • Michigan attacking the paint/drawing fouls on Leonard. If Michigan can manage getting Leonard to pick up 2 early fouls, I have to think this game could be locked up in the first half. If the fouls don't happen, make him come out and defend the pick and roll; the more time he spends outside of the paint the better, from both a rebounding and a shot-blocking perspective. 
  • Stu vs. Brandon Paul. Nothing to say here other than D up and don't let him score 43. It is a little bit worrisome that Paul scored 43 against a team featuring a defensive pest like Craft, but you have to think that was just a once in a lifetime performance. 
  • The generic "make 3s" point goes here. With Leonard patrolling the lane, Michigan will need to convert from outside or else a desperate Illinois team could keep it close throughout. 
Meaningless Prediction
Michigan as yet to lose at home and I don't think that record get its first blemish this Sunday. Illinois just does not look good these days, and I have never really been a fan of Weber in general. Leonard presents some pretty obvious matchup problems for us (for any team, really), but Michigan's solid effort against Zeller perhaps provided the interior defense in this game. Michigan has the option of bringing the double with THJ and letting the Illini perimeter guys clank threes, or they can take their chances with an unpolished Leonard in the post. I'm leaning towards the latter, as Leonard is also a surprisingly adept passer for a big man, one of several aspects of his game that NBA scouts are raving about. 

Either way, Leonard will get his. In 4 of his last 5 games, he's scored: 17, 21, 17, and 16. However, as long as Stu plays his customarily sturdy defense against a somewhat inefficient Brandon Paul, Illinois shouldn't pose too much of a threat. Offensively, Michigan will need to walk the line between caution and courage in attacking the lane when Leonard is on the floor. But, as usual, it will come down to whether or not Michigan can hit their looks from outside. In the friendly confines of the Crisler Center, Michigan will see enough 3s go in en route to getting that critical 9th conference win. Michigan 68, Illinois 61. 

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