Not since the Fab Five was captivating college basketball in the early 1990s did Michigan boast the nation’s top-ranked team.
That’s on the verge of changing.
The currently second-ranked Wolverines likely will move up to No. 1 in the next AP poll by beating host Illinois for the fourth straight time Sunday night.
Freshmen Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King helped Michigan reach the 1992 national championship game and began the 1992-93 season as the country’s No. 1 squad.
The Wolverines lost their first game that campaign and haven’t been atop the poll since.
This Michigan team, though, is a victory at Illinois away from earning that elusive accomplishment after top-ranked Duke was routed 90-63 by No. 25 Miami on Wednesday.
“We would be lying to you if we didn’t have that in our mind, but we really are trying to do a great job of just trying to get better as a team each and every day,” guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said after scoring 13 points in a 68-53 win over Purdue on Thursday.
Coach John Beilein, though, downplayed the potential No. 1 ranking for the Wolverines (18-1, 5-1), saying he wants “to know where we’re going to be in March” during a television interview Friday.
Though Michigan has proved to be a legitimate contender for its first national title since 1989, Beilein knows his squad has to keep its focus.
“As we play against better and better teams – which you’re going to see every day in the Big Ten – you have to be poised,” Beilein said.
“Our team really has to play at a high level, whether you’re home or away. Illinois now (presents) different challenges. That’s the beauty of the puzzle to be able to put it all together.”
Hardaway scored 25 points and standout guard Trey Burke, who ranks third in the conference averaging 17.8 points, added 21 as the visiting Wolverines beat the Fighting Illini 72-61 in the most recent meeting March 1 to end a 13-game losing streak at Assembly Hall.
The last time Michigan saw Illinois coach John Groce, though, he guided 13th-seeded Ohio to a 65-60 second-round upset of the Wolverines in last season’s NCAA tournament.
Groce’s Illini (15-5, 2-4) were ranked in the top 10 after leading the nation by a wide margin in the 3-point field goals during a 12-0 start to the season. They’ve struggled since, though, shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from 3-point range over their last eight.
Illinois got a boost from D.J. Richardson’s career-high 30 points as it ended a three-game losing streak with a 71-51 win at Nebraska on Tuesday. Brandon Paul, who scored 21 in the last meeting with Michigan and is second in the Big Ten averaging 18.0 points, added 14.
“Something to build on, for sure,” Groce said.
He also knows the Illini need to improve to have a shot at pulling off the upset Sunday. Michigan leads the conference in shooting at 50.9 percent and is second in scoring, averaging 78.7 points.
Illinois has allowed its last four opponents to shoot 45.7 percent and ranks 11th in the 12-team Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up 65.6 per game.
“They’re a load,” Groce said. “They’re terrific and both ends of the floor and don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”
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