The no. 2 Michigan Wolverines will put their undefeated record on the line Thursday night when they visit the Illinois Fighting Illini. Michigan is listed as an 8.5-point favorite on the road.
While they haven’t ascended to the top spot in the polls just yet, Michigan may be the most impressive team in the country to this point in the season. The Wolverines sustained heavy losses after last year’s title game defeat, but they may be even better this year. Thus far, their season has been highlighted by lopsided wins against Villanova and North Carolina, as well as convincing conference victories over the likes of Purdue and Indiana.
Meanwhile, Illinois is sitting in the Big Ten basement. Brad Underwood’s second season in Champaign is going even worse than last year’s 14-18 campaign. The Illini are just 4-11 and have started out 0-4 in conference play. To be fair, Illinois has played a difficult schedule and played a lot of competitive games. However, they are finding ways to lose rather than finding ways to win.
Not Fitting Together
The Fighting Illini have some legitimate talent, but they can’t seem to put it together at the same time. Of their 11 losses, seven have come by single digits and against noteworthy programs, so they’ve stayed competitive with good teams. However, something eventually seems to go wrong and prevent them from winning. For instance, in their last game against Northwestern, Illinois went 0 for 11 from three-point range in a 2-point loss.
In recent games, freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu has stepped up big time, averaging nearly 20 points per game over his last three outings. However, that has coincided in a drop in productivity from leading scorer Trent Frazier. While he’s averaging close to 15 points per game, Frazier has averaged less than nine points in his last three games. If Illinois is going to have any chance against Michigan, they’ll need both Dosunmu and Frazier to both put the ball in the basket, not just one of them.
The New Troika
The Wolverines have been led this season by the trio of Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, and Jordan Poole. All three are averaging over 14 points per game, accounting for roughly 60% of Michigan’s scoring this season. Naturally, there is a drop-off in productivity after those three stars. Also, John Beilein’s rotation is often limited to just seven players. However, the combination of Brazdeikis, Matthews, and Poole along with a few key role players has worked to perfection thus far.
In the few games that Michigan has been challenged, one of the team’s big three usually has an off night scoring. However, getting average scoring nights from two of them should be enough most nights, especially with the way the Wolverines play defense. Only six of the 15 teams they’ve played have even reached 60 points against Michigan, so when all three stars have a good game, the Wolverines are almost impossible to beat.
As mentioned, Illinois has played mostly competitive games against quality teams. However, the Wolverines are on another level. If the Fighting Illini don’t play perfect, they could get blown out at home. Bet on Michigan covering the 8.5-point spread on Thursday.