Heated rivalry resumes as Michigan hosts No. 15 Illinois
No. 15 Illinois and Michigan have developed a hearty dislike for one another of late, adding more intrigue to their Big Ten meeting on Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It stems from the end of the regular season last year, when Michigan was awarded the regular-season conference title based on having a better winning percentage, even though the Wolverines didn't play all of their league games due to COVID-19.
That didn't sit well with Illinois, which played all 20 of its regular-season games, had more conference wins and won the lone meeting between the teams in Ann Arbor, so the Fighting Illini claimed a "co-championship" with the Wolverines.
That perturbed Michigan, and all the drama was a definite backdrop to the first meeting of the year between the teams, a 68-53 win by Illinois on Jan. 14.
Michigan played that game without leading scorer Hunter Dickinson due to COVID-19 protocol, but Dickinson is back and will battle Illinois center Kobi Cockburn in a clash of two the country's best big men.
It also will be a game that carries heavy Big Ten title and NCAA tournament implications.
Illinois (19-8, 12-5 Big Ten) is coming off an 86-83 home loss to No. 22 Ohio State on Thursday, which knocked it one game behind conference co-leaders Wisconsin and Purdue entering play Saturday.
The setback against Ohio State has made winning at Michigan a must if Illinois wants to stay in the hunt for a conference title.
However, Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after the Ohio State game his team is also building toward the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't do that last year," Underwood said. "We're doubling down on what we do, but I challenged our staff the other day. I said, 'I need three or four things that give us problems, and we have to go figure it out now (how to fix them).' It's that time."
Michigan hopes to maintain its momentum after going 8-4 in its last 12 games to get back in the hunt for an NCAA berth.
Michigan is coming off a 71-62 home win over Rutgers on Wednesday.
The Wolverines (15-11, 9-7) also showed they could respond to adversity in their first game without coach Juwan Howard, who was suspended five games for slapping a Wisconsin assistant coach during a postgame skirmish in the handshake line on Feb. 20.
Michigan also was without suspended players Moussa Diabate and Terrance Williams for the game, but others stepped up in the win over Rutgers.
Caleb Houstan, a highly touted freshman who has struggled for most of the year, scored a season-high 21 points and made five shots from 3-point range against the Scarlet Knights.
"Him scoring opens the floor," said Michigan assistant Phil Martelli, the acting head coach in Howard's absence. "Caleb was shooting the ball. To me, and I'm not a shooting instructor or anything, but the only thing important for Caleb Houstan-level shooters is the next shot, not the last shot. For long periods of time this year, it's been the last shot (that's mattered). No, let the ball go. He has a brilliant stroke."
Both Diabate and Williams will be back on the floor for the Wolverines after serving their one-game suspensions.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 26, 2022