BY JIM COTTER
The 2012-13 edition of the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team has found life on the road to be a pretty self-satisfying one so far this season.
Later today, they get another chance to show everyone what they are made of away from the Assembly Hall when they travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to battle the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Arena.
Already this season, the Illini have road victories over Hawaii, Gonzaga and three games on the island of Maui to win the Maui Invitational, not to mention a key road win a couple weeks ago at Minnesota.
“We have to be unflappable on the road. We played that way at Gonzaga and Minnesota, and experience helps a lot,” Illini coach John Groce said.
The Illini ran their current winning streak to five games on Thursday evening, as they won an ugly contest over Penn State 64-59, a game in which they didn’t play their best but it was still good enough to defeat the Nittany Lions.
The win over the Nittany Lions gave the Illini their 20th win of the season against 8 losses, and evened up their Big Ten conference record at 7-7. That is a far cry from earlier in the season, when the Illini were struggling at 2-7 in the league with top-ranked Indiana coming in.
Groce praised his team for their effort on Thursday evening after falling behind early on against the Nittany Lions.
“Our team showed great poise by bouncing back after falling behind early, and with a short turnaround between Penn State and Michigan, we have to be careful how we use our practice time,” Groce said.
Michigan (22-4, 9-4) comes into the game with Illinois as the No. 7 ranked team in the country, but have lost three of their last five games to fall into sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten standings.
The Wolverines defeated the Illini 74-60 back on Jan. 27 in Champaign, but the Illini are playing much better since their first meeting.
“We limited them (Michigan) to just five three pointers in the first game, but sloppy turnovers led to a lot of easy baskets,” Groce said.
The Wolverines are led in scoring by Trey Burke, who is averaging almost 19 points per game, and that mark is the second best average in the Big Ten Conference.
“I watched Burke play a lot in high school, and he has continued to get better, so I have a lot of respect for him,” Groce said.
As a team, the Wolverines are second in the Big Ten in scoring average, coming in at 76.2 points per game.
They rank third in offensive efficiency in the country, which, according to Groce, makes them very difficult to defend.
“They (Michigan) are an offensive juggernaut, and with them, you have to pick your poison. Nik Stauskus is the third leading scorer on their team, and is one of the best freshmen in the country,” said Groce.
Whereas Brandon Paul still leads the Illini in scoring at just over 16 points a game, fellow senior teammate D. J. Richardson is having a standout season that is worthy of some team MVP consideration.
Richardson ranks second in scoring for the Illini at almost 13 points per game, and is on a streak of nine straight games scoring in double figures.
Game time this afternoon is set for a noon tipoff, and can be seen on ESPN, and heard on WDAN-AM 1490, WDNL-FM 102.1, and statewide on the Illini Sports Network.