March 3, 2014
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
This past weekend, U-M clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with a 66-56 win over Minnesota, while second-place Michigan State dropped a game at home to Illinois, 53-46. It will be Michigan's second Big Ten title in the last three seasons.
However, Michigan is not celebrating yet.
"In this league, it (the regular-season championship) is valued so much more than others," said head coach John Beilein. "So it is a high priority for us to just go in and beat Illinois, and let the other stuff take care of itself. That's the only focus we can have right now. If we can do that, that will be a great accomplishment."
One of the keys to Michigan's success in the Big Ten has been its ability to win on the road. U-M claimed its sixth conference road win with the dramatic 77-76 overtime win at Purdue. It is the most Big Ten road wins in the Beilein era and the most since the 1992-93 season (7-2).
"The Nebraska game and the Purdue game were just great fortune. We've been unlucky in some games in the last couple of years, and it sort of measures itself out," said Beilein. "I've always defended our road record as being pretty good. If you win half of them or near half of them, you had a pretty good year."
Another has been the team's attitude. In a league with as much parity as this season's Big Ten, it's important not to overlook any opponents, or to lose focus after a big win.
"You start in October. This is going to be a day-to-day thing, and we're just going to dream big but focus small," said Beilein. "Just take each day and make the most of it. And if you have that as a habit, I think that can get you through the month of March."
The third key has been Michigan's offensive production. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage (47.7), three-point percentage (38.9) and free throw percentage (75.7). They are third overall in scoring at 74.9 per game.
On Tuesday (March 4), Michigan will have its final road test of the season against an Illinois squad that is on the rise. After a midseason eight-game losing streak, Illinois has won four of its last six, including three straight wins -- at Minnesota (62-49), Nebraska (60-49) and at Michigan State (53-46).
Over its last four games, Illinois has not allowed an opponent to score more than 50 points, holding teams to 48.0 ppg. The Illini also plays a steady nine-man rotation.
"They are creating turnovers and that's been a big thing," said Beilein. "That's where they've been getting a lot of their offense."
Illinois is led by Rayvonte Rice, who leads the Illini in scoring (15.4 ppg), rebounding (6.0 rpg) and steals (1.6 spg). Tracy Abrams leads the team in assists (3.2 apg), while scoring 10.9 points a game. Jon Ekey has the most three-pointers on the team with 48 and Nnanna Egwu has a team-best 65 blocks (2.2) and averages 6.0 rebounds per game.
The game will be the first meeting of the season between Michigan and Illinois. The Wolverines trail in the all-time series, 85-76; however, U-M has won the last five meetings including its last two in Champaign. Overall, Michigan has a 25-55 record at Illinois.
Last season, U-M claimed a 74-60 win at the State Farm Center (Jan. 27, 2013) and a 71-58 win at Crisler Center (Feb. 24, 2013).