Champaign, IL (Sports Network) - A Big Ten Conference showdown is on tap for Sunday evening, as the Illinois Fighting Illini play host to the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Only a Jan. 13 loss at nationally-ranked Ohio State has kept Michigan from a perfect season, and since that defeat it has responded well with a road win over Minnesota (83-75) followed by a 68-53 triumph versus Purdue. With No. 1 Duke losing earlier in the week, the Wolverines appear to be in line for the top spot when the new AP Poll is unveiled on Monday, if they can take care of business today of course.
Illinois was one of the nation's biggest surprises early in the season, as it opened at 12-0 and rose as high as No. 10 in the rankings. Things have not worked out well for the Illini since Big Ten play began however, as they have dropped four of six conference bouts, but they are fresh off a 71-51 road win over Nebraska on Jan. 22. Starting with this matchup, the Illini will face four ranked foes in their next five games.
Michigan has defeated Illinois in three straight contests, but the Illini still lead the all-time series, 85-74.
Michigan was sluggish out of the gate against Purdue, as it went into the locker room at halftime trailing, 33-32. The team was able to pull it together after intermission however, shooting 53.8 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes to pull away for the 15-point home win. Trey Burke was stellar once again, tallying 15 points and eight assists, while Glenn Robinson III narrowly missed a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (13 points) and Nik Stauskas (12 points) were also solid in the triumph. It's easy to see why the Wolverines, who average 78.7 ppg while allowing 59.2 ppg, are one of the nation's top teams considering their outstanding +19.6 scoring margin in a strong Big Ten. Burke is building a strong resume' for Big Ten Player of the Year, ranking third in the conference in scoring (17.8 ppg) and first in assists (7.2 apg), all while shooting an outstanding 50.4 percent from the field. Hardaway, Jr. is hot on Burke's heels with his 16.2 ppg, and Stauskas has made 49 3-pointers at a 49.5 percent clip. Robinson III adds 12.1 ppg and 5.9 rpg to the mix.
Illinois was able to snap a three-game losing streak the last time out by piecing together solid efforts from the floor (24-of-53) and the foul line (16-of-21), while stepping it up at the defensive end by holding Nebraska to as many field goals as it had turnovers (14). D.J. Richardson shot 6-of-9 from 3-point range en route to a career-high 30 points, and while Brandon Paul struggled with to find hit stroke (4-of-13), he still finished with 14 points. Paul is typically the focal point for the Illini, who shoot 43.1 percent from the field in putting up 72.8 ppg. The senior guard nets 18.0 ppg (second in the Big Ten) and adds 4.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.3 spg, and nearly a block per game to his stat line. Richardson averages 11.8 ppg, but he's usually a detriment to the team with his poor shooting (.374). Tracy Abrams rounds out the unit's double-digit scorers with 11.4 ppg, while also contributing team-highs in both assists (3.2 apg) and steals (1.6 spg).