Having already won two games against ranked opponents in the last two weeks, Illinois should be able to move into the Top 25 for the first time in nearly three years with a win over Michigan on Sunday.
Trying to keep that from happening, the No. 23 Wolverines look to avoid back-to-back losses against unranked opponents to open the Big Ten season when they host the Illini on Sunday.
Illinois (13-1, 1-0) has won seven straight, with two of its last three victories coming on the road against ranked foes - 75-59 over then-No. 25 Missouri in St. Louis on Dec. 23 and 71-67 in overtime against No. 9 Purdue on Tuesday.
“We just stayed together,” said guard Trent Meacham, who had 11 points and six assists Tuesday. “We made some big plays down the stretch. … We believed that we could win, and that was huge for us.”
Illinois hasn’t beaten three ranked opponents in the same season since 2005-06, and the final poll of that season also marks the last time the program was ranked. The current winning streak is the Illini’s longest since opening 2005-06 with 15 consecutive victories.
“Hopefully we did make a little bit of a statement, but you can’t worry about if we’re ranked or not ranked,” said Meacham, one of four Illinois players averaging a team-leading 12.1 points. “You just have to continue to stay as a team and continue to improve.”
The Illini would almost certainly guarantee themselves a spot in the rankings by winning in Ann Arbor, considering they received the third-most votes of teams who failed to make last week’s Top 25.
The Wolverines (10-3, 0-1) are at risk of falling out of the AP poll regardless of Sunday’s result, considering they opened Big Ten play with a 73-61 home loss to Wisconsin on Wednesday.
Michigan shot below 40 percent for the third straight game (39.2 percent) and leading scorer Manny Harris, who came in averaging 19.8 points, was held to nine on 3-of-13 shooting.
Some players were more frustrated by the lack of defense, however. Wisconsin shot 58.7 percent from the field.
“We have to come out better right off the bat,” said Zack Novak, who scored a career-high 20 points. “To come in and let them score 12 of their first 13 possessions, that is not the way we play defense and we know that. We have some things we need to work on before Illinois but I think we will be able to do it.”
The Wolverines lost their first three Big Ten games last season en route to a 5-13 finish in conference play and a 10-22 overall record in their first season under coach John Beilein. Despite the loss in their league opener this season, they still believe they are headed in the right direction.
“We need to keep our head through this thing,” freshman transfer Laval Lucas-Perry said. “We are running a marathon. We lost the first leg, but we need to keep going.”
Illinois has won 16 of the last 20 meetings with Michigan, but the Illini have lost their last three visits to Ann Arbor.
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