BY CHAD DARE
Most of us can look at the Illinois men’s basketball schedule and see a daunting task ahead of the Fighting Illini.
Today’s game against the No. 2-rated Michigan Wolverines is one of four games in the next two weeks against top-15 competition.
During that time, the Illini will play three teams (Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) that are on top of the league standings with just one conference loss.
And while all of those things are true, first-year coach John Groce is only worried about things that he can control.
“The biggest thing that we have been working on is ourselves,’’ he said. “We worry far less about the opponent and more about ourselves.
“We’ve worked on moving the ball better, screening better and defending dribble penetration better.’’
Those things were definitely better in the last outing as Illinois rolled over Nebraska 71-51 behind a 30-point performance from D.J. Richardson.
“I just felt that we got better over the last week,’’ Groce said.
And, the Illini will need even more improvement if they are going to beat the second-rated Wolverines (18-1, 5-1) who will become the nation’s newest No. 1 team on Monday with a win.
“They are a load,’’ said Groce about Michigan. “They are terrific at both ends of the floor. They have great personnel, they are very well coached.
“They don’t have a lot of weaknesses.’’
One of the biggest strengths for Michigan is sophomore point guard Trey Burke.
The 6-footer from Columbus, Ohio, is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 assists per game and Burke is a possible conference player of the year and national player of the year selection.
“Great kid, great family, terrific player,’’ Groce said. “He makes guys better. He can score from all areas of the court. He is competitively tough. There is no question he is having that type of a year to be a candidate for those awards.’’
And Groce pointed out that his current statistics rival that of a former Big Ten legend.
“I think I saw a stat that the last player to average 17-plus points and 7-plus assists per game was Magic Johnson — and he was pretty good,’’ said Groce, who has followed Big Ten basketball for nearly 40 years. “You look at his assist-to-turnover ratio (3.9 to 1) it’s disgusting in addition to the scoring.’’
In addition to Burke, the Wolverines also feature guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who is averaging 16.2 points a game, along with a freshman class of Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary.
“They have a good blend of guys with experience and guys that are younger that are bringing things to the table,’’ Groce said. “They have a lot of weapons. They have guys that can shoot the ball. They have got guys that can finish above the rim. They’ve got size. And obviously, they have an elite-level point guard.’’
In addition to Richardson, Illinois will look for big games from the other members of its backcourt.
Senior Brandon Paul and sophomore Tracy Abrams come into today’s game averaging 18.0 and 11.4 points per game for the Illini.
Today’s game can be seen on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.