CHAMPAIGN — Illinois and Michigan haven't lacked drama on or off the hardwood the past couple of months.
Michigan won last year's regular season Big Ten title on a winning percentage tiebreaker — the Wolverines went 14-3 in conference, missing games because of COVID-19, while the Illini went 16-4 and lobbied to be named co-champions because they played a full conference slate and won the head-to-head matchup in Ann Arbor.
The Illini got their conference crown by winning the conference tournament, but animosity still lingers ahead of the teams' first matchup since last March when Michigan plays Illinois at 8 p.m. Friday at the State Farm Center.
"Just two teams that I guess don't like each other," Illini guard Trent Frazier said.
"There are certain games that it's human nature," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "You're gonna get excited. They're good. It's a good basketball team. Last season we were the two best teams in the league and we had some outside circumstances involved that you know, whatever they were, but we know it's a really good basketball team ... It makes college basketball fun, these types of games."
Illinois (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) comes into the game winning nine of its past 10 games. The Illini are off to their best conference start since 2004-05. Frazier's 29 points led them to a win over Nebraska on Tuesday.
Frazier had been able to pick up the offense in the past couple of games, with 45 points over the past two games as the team's second offensive option behind Kofi Cockburn.
“(He’s) maybe playing as good as any guard out there,” Underwood said.
The bench has also hit its stride, with Coleman Hawkins averaging eight rebounds and six points over the past three games. He had a big tip-in late to help put the game against Nebraska out of reach.
"I hope I've simplified the game for him," Underwood said. "Early on we were playing Coleman at literally every position, and that's asking him to do a lot. He (had) some experience but not a ton of experience. ... So we've tried to simplify that role for him and I think that's helped a lot."
Cockburn, the nation's third-leading rebounder and fifth-leading scorer, will go up against Michigan big man and an All-American second team selection Hunter Dickinson in the premier matchup of the game. Both teams run a lot of their respective offenses through those big men, who will likely be matched up against each other for stretches where they both play the five.
"I think it's just gonna send a message to all the people who try to put them in the same category,” Hawkins said. “I think Kofi is a much more dominant player.”
Michigan (7-6, 1-2) had to postpone its game scheduled against Purdue earlier this week, but coach Juwan Howard said the team will have the seven players and a coach required to play. Underwood is preparing for the entire Michigan team to be available.
"We're gonna get Michigan's best shot and I'm not gonna look at it any other way," Underwood said.
The Wolverines are off to a slow start and have dropped three of their past four. COVID issues within the program have kept them from playing since a loss to Rutgers on Jan. 4. Dickinson, Eli Brooks Jr. and five-star freshman Caleb Houstan are the three leading scorers for Michigan.
The Wolverines were ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll after bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class and will be the most talented team the Illini have faced since their loss to Arizona on Dec. 11. It also sets up Illinois’ matchup with No. 7 Purdue on Monday.
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