ANN ARBOR – Michigan recently hasn’t looked much like the same team that easily disposed of Illinois last month. By the same token, the Fighting Illini have turned things around and are the hottest team in the Big Ten.
Both teams’ defenses appear to be trending in opposite directions heading into Sunday’s meeting in Ann Arbor, where the seventh-ranked Wolverines look to move to 16-0 while winning a fifth straight in this series.
Michigan (22-4, 9-4) was 19-1 following a 74-60 win in Champaign on Jan. 27, but has since gone 3-3. The defense has slipped dramatically in February, with the Wolverines giving up 73.2 points per game after yielding an average of 58.8 in their first eight conference contests.
Michigan avoided what would have been a third straight loss with a 79-71 home win against Penn State last Sunday after trailing by as many as eight in the first half.
Offensively, Tim Hardaway Jr. – the squad’s No. 2 scorer at 15.2 point per game – had his second straight poor performance. Hardaway scored eight on 3-of-11 shooting after finishing 1 of 11 with two points in a 75-52 loss at Michigan State on Feb. 12.
“I think this whole week, looking at those two games, I just really focused on playing defense, getting back to rebounding and I’m just going out and having fun,” Hardaway said.
Glenn Robinson III at least appeared to snap out of his recent funk, matching a season high with 21 points on 6-of-6 shooting against the Nittany Lions after averaging 4.5 points on 29.2 percent shooting in his previous four games.
“It definitely got my confidence rolling,” said Robinson, who also had 10 rebounds.
Trey Burke, meanwhile, has remained consistently good despite Michigan’s struggles. The sophomore point guard is averaging 21.4 points and 5.8 assists over the last five and is the only Big Ten player to score at least 15 in each conference game.
He’ll try to keep that streak going against the Illini (20-8, 7-7), whose five-game win streak is currently a conference-best. Another victory would give Illinois its longest league winning streak since its 15-game run in 2005, when it went on to lose to North Carolina in the national championship game.
While Michigan’s defense has struggled lately, Illinois’ has flourished, limiting opponents to 56.8 ppg on 39.0 percent shooting over the last five. Coach John Groce’s team yielded an average of 69.8 points through its first nine conference games.
“It’s been kind of a blur,” Groce said. ” … I think we’ve practiced for the most part really well. Guys have bought into getting better, learning. I give our assistant coaches a lot of credit.”
While leading scorer Brandon Paul (16.4 ppg) has averaged just 11.6 points during the current streak, D.J. Richardson has picked up the slack by scoring 18.0 points per game.
Michigan hopes the week off provided an opportunity to get healthier. Starting forward Jordan Morgan is still recovering from a lingering ankle injury that’s limited him to a total of 22 minutes over the last five contests. Reserve Caris LeVert left the game against Penn State with an ankle injury but was a full participant in Friday’s practice, coach John Beilein said.
Burke had 19 points, five assists and three steals in the first meeting as Michigan shot 52.5 percent. Paul had 15 points for Illinois, which had won four straight in the series before dropping the last four.
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