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Illinois basketball preview: Michigan

Illinois’s win at Michigan State on Saturday put the team firmly back in the NCAA Tourney discussion, with many prognosticators adding the Illini to their field of 68. That is, of course, assuming the State Farm Center is a fortress and no team makes steals a win when visiting.

So far this season Illinois has just one loss at home, to Indiana, but holding serve at home for the remainder of the season is certainly easier said than done. The first test for the Illini will be Michigan, who visit this evening. 

In Ann Arbor in the Big Ten opener, Illinois let a 13-point lead evaporate in the final 10 minutes to grab a loss from the jaws of victory. In the loss, Illinois failed to close out on Aubrey Dawkins, a bench player for the Wolverines, and were burned as he went 6 for 7 from three. Michigan also effectively shut down the Illini offense, holding everyone but Malcolm Hill (19 points) to single-digit scoring.

With one game against Michigan already in the books, its easy to identify a few key areas for Illinois. First, don’t give anyone the looks Dawkins had in the first game. Caris Lavert is done for the season, so this task is easier this time around, but Illinois just can’t have the errors it had in the first game. Second, find a second star on offense. If Hill is tasked with beating Michigan on his own again, well count on a loss; but if Nunn or Black or Egwu shows up and has a game, the Illini could take this one.

John Groce is still playing the suspensions of Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby close to the chest, repeating the party line, “still indefinitely suspended.” It’s been about two weeks since the suspensions were announced, which seems like a fairly significant amount of time, but we don’t know what the duo did other than something “to embarrass the University of Illinois, the men’s basketball program, [themselves] or [their] family” (this is the only rule Groce has).

So, could Rice and Cosby be on the court Thursday? It’s not impossible and it would help the team get its chemistry back as it heads toward the postseason. Will they be on the court Thursday? Your guess is as good as mine. I think Illinois beats Lavert-less Michigan either way, even if by a narrow margin.

My prediction: Illinois 69 – Michigan 64

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