Illinois-Michigan Preview

Illinois-Michigan Preview

Published Mar. 13, 2014 6:34 p.m. ET

(AP) - The Big Ten's player of the year - the offensive star of the league's regular-season champion - insists his team still isn't getting that much recognition.

''I don't think it's disrespect, I just think sometimes we may be just flying under the radar,'' Michigan's Nik Stauskas said. ''We're perfectly fine with that.''

Just to recap: Michigan played in the championship game of last year's NCAA tournament and may have a shot at a No. 1 seed this season. The Wolverines won the Big Ten by three games and are now ranked eighth in the country.

So Michigan can expect plenty of attention at this week's Big Ten tournament, beginning in Friday's quarterfinals against Illinois, but Stauskas and his teammates are always on the lookout for extra motivation.


''I don't think we're the favorite to win this tournament,'' said Stauskas, a sophomore guard. ''I don't think anyone really thinks we're going to win, so we still have a chip on our shoulder.''

The Wolverines (23-7) actually were pretty well regarded at the beginning of the season, with Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary returning from last year's Final Four run. But a shaky start and McGary's back injury left Michigan facing all sorts of uncertainty.

The Wolverines responded impressively, beating Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State on the road and leaving the rest of the rugged Big Ten behind. It was Michigan's first outright conference title since 1986 - and this is the team's first time entering the league tournament as the top seed.

Wolverines coach John Beilein says he's not concerned at all about his team's NCAA tournament seed. Michigan was a No. 4 seed last year and looks headed for an even better spot this time.

Beilein worries instead about how the Wolverines can keep improving late in the season. Like last year, Michigan is an offensive juggernaut, but the Wolverines are not one of the nation's top teams defensively.

''We have gotten better, but obviously, we're not good enough to shut people down enough,'' Beilein said. ''We better play well offensively, or we'll have a tough time winning.''

Of course, the Wolverines are almost impossible to beat if they shoot like they did last week against Illinois. Michigan went 16 of 23 from 3-point range against the Illini and won 84-53.

The Wolverines won the inaugural Big Ten tournament in 1998, but they haven't reached the title game since.

The 2014 team has shown decent depth in McGary's absence, and the injured big man said last weekend he's now able to run. But he hasn't played since December, and Beilein certainly isn't dropping any hints about a possible return.

''I don't let him do anything in practice that involves what we do, other than just rebound foul shots or something like that,'' the coach said.

Stauskas, meanwhile, has become Michigan's top performer offensively, averaging 17.4 points and shooting 46 percent from 3-point range. He was named Big Ten player of the year by both the coaches and media.

''I worked the whole offseason to put myself in this position to win that award,'' Stauskas said. ''It means a lot, and I'm just super excited right now.''

The Illini (19-13) are the tournament's No. 9 seed but have been one of the Big Ten's hottest teams, winning five of six with two road victories over ranked foes.

However, the lone blemish in that span was the blowout loss to the Wolverines as Stauskas had 24 points, hitting seven 3-pointers. Illinois' Rayvonte Rice and Kendrick Nunn totaled 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting, but their teammates combined to shoot 9 for 30.

"I think our group is pretty tough. They got to understand that that was two games ago," coach John Groce said of the Michigan loss. "(Friday's) game could be a completely different type of game. It's a separate entity within itself. We've got to play well."

Tracy Abrams shot 1 of 5 for two points against the Wolverines, but he scored a season-high 25 in a 64-54 first-round victory over Indiana on Thursday. Rice reached double figures for the fifth straight game with 13 points, but he's 3 for 20 from 3-point range in that span.

The Illini haven't won more than one game in the Big Ten tournament since reaching the final in 2008. They've lost the last six meetings with the Wolverines.