Illinois looks for revenge against Michigan in ‘Orange Out’

What a difference a couple months can make.

On Dec. 30, when Illinois (16-8, 6-5 Big Ten) and Michigan (13-11, 6-6) kicked off the Big Ten season in front of a raucous Michigan crowd that had a strong dose of Jim Harbaugh’s home-brewed adrenaline, these two teams were playing with the lineups they expected to have all season.

Fast forward about a month and half and Illinois and Michigan look like two very different teams heading into Thursday night’s rematch at State Farm Center.

The Wolverines’ big three has turned into the big one. Sophomore guard Zak Irvin has been carrying the load for Michigan over the past few weeks while leading scorer Caris LeVert and leading assist man Derrick Walton Jr. are out with foot injuries. The Wolverines are 2-4 without LeVert, have lost three straight Big Ten games and simply aren’t the same team that erased a 13-point deficit to beat the Illini in overtime earlier this season.

While Michigan is trending downward, Illinois is trending upward with no decline in sight. Amidst the suspensions of Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby, the Illini have come together and won three straight games and five of their last seven.

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No one knows when John Groce will release Rice and Cosby from the doghouse. Heck, they could even end up playing Thursday. But what we do know is that Malcolm Hill will lead a balanced Illini scoring attack that has seen five different players score in double digits during the recent win streak.

As two sophomores taking over their respective programs almost by default, the Hill-Irvin matchup will be key in this rematch. Hill’s recent excellence has been well-documented — and rightfully so. He’s 11th in the Big Ten scoring and has averaged more than 20 points per game in Illinois’ last three games. With Irvin coming to town, it will be the fourth straight game where Illinois has faced a team with a scorer who ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten.

All of that being said, this game could come down to each team’s depth. The Illini have the clear advantage in that category.

Kendrick Nunn leads Illinois in 3-point shooting and has been an effective Robin to Hill’s Batman.

Speaking of 3-pointers, Ahmad Starks has finally been doing what Groce brought him here to do lately. Starks’ eight made threes in the past three games are nearly a third of his entire output from beyond the arc this season.

Starks’ fellow guard Jaylon Tate is tied for third in the Big Ten in assist-turnover ratio (2.7) and has 13 assists in the last three games. Starks and Tate have seen more time on the court together lately, which has proved to be a quality combination for Illinois.

It’s the Illini’s balance that has allowed them to stay afloat, and even excel, without their best player. I’m not trying to say Illinois has San Antonio Spurs-like depth, but compared to Michigan, the Illini looks like a team Coach Pop would be happy to lead.

After Irvin, the Wolverines’ next leading scorer is freshman forward Ricky Doyle, who averages 6.5 points per game. The Illini have four different active players that average more points than that.

Michigan’s junior point guard Spike Albrecht is tied with Tate for third in the Big Ten in assist-turnover ratio and makes a solid impact running the show for Michigan, but beyond that, the Wolverines just don’t have the same amount of playmakers they did earlier in the year.

Even with Michigan’s depleted roster, the biggest factor in Illinois’ quest for revenge on Thursday could very well be the home crowd at State Farm Center.

As I mentioned earlier, Jim Harbaugh should have gotten the game ball in Michigan’s previous win over Illinois. He pumped up the crowd in Ann Arbor from the get-go, creating an atmosphere that willed the Wolverines to a late comeback win in overtime. As far as I know, Harbaugh won’t be making any guest appearances on Thursday night.

Illini great Dee Brown will be there in spirit, though, since it’s Dee Brown bobblehead night Thursday. That, along with the athletic department’s “Orange Out” promotion, will create the type of rocking atmosphere that will surely have a huge impact on the game, which is already sold out.

Fortunately, the crowd should work in Illinois’ favor. Illinois is 11-1 at home this season, including 4-1 during Big Ten play.

Having already played more than half of their conference games, every win is crucial for the Illini as they make their case for an NCAA tournament bid. With a fourth-straight win on Thursday, Illinois’ resume will be that much stronger.

Joey is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @joeyfigueroa3.