No. 2 Michigan will welcome No. 4 Illinois to Crisler Center tonight at 7:00 pm EST on ESPN with a Big Ten Championship on the line. With a win, the Wolverines will capture their first regular season Big Ten championship since 2014 and the first ever for second year head coach Juwan Howard.
Though a conference championship during such a strange and challenging season would be huge for any program, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood - knowing full well he won’t win it - thinks the title is essentially meaningless this season. “It’s the one off year”, said Underwood in an interview with The News-Gazette. “These games mean nothing. There’s no Big Ten championship that means much. These games don’t mean much. They really don’t.”
In addition to dismissing the season and the conference championship, Underwood continued to air his grievances with the season overall. Ignoring the fact that Michigan also faced a lengthy layoff due to COVID issues, Underwood shared his disappointment in his teams 10-day pause.
"If I have any frustration, we were perfectly healthy and sat for 10 days in the middle of the season. I know it goes beyond us, but my whole deal is I know hard I have preached and how committed our players have been to doing everything perfect with COVID. These guys have not done one thing outside of the 30 people that are every day testing.”
Underwood also appeared to express some frustration in having to play Michigan this late in the season, after the initial game was postponed earlier in the year.
"We’re going to do what the league tells us because we think that’s right, and the Big Ten is the league we’re all playing in. It’s unfortunate that the three games we got were all road games, and it’s not our fault. I’m going to be bigger than that. I want my players to learn a life lesson — not just a single game moment.”
It’s certainly an odd set of statements to make at this point to say the least, but it’s also very telling. Underwood appears painfully aware of the challenge he faces heading into Ann Arbor to battle what is likely the best team in America. While Underwood has already determined that the outcome - and the conference championship - is meaningless, the Wolverines remain hungrier than ever. Not only do they want to lock up the conference championship tonight, they remain focused on the biggest prize of all - a National Championship.
They're also not shy about discussing it.
“I know guys don’t like to talk about the future,” said senior forward Isaiah Livers. “But that’s not what we do here. That’s kind of our motivation. We talk to each other, we want to win to win the Big Ten—we want it all. We don’t want to win one thing, we want it all. I feel like when you have that mentality, you have that kind of coach, that leadership, that dog. We’re all going to follow his lead. Whatever he says, goes. Like I said in the last interview that I had, we follow Coach Howard. No matter where he goes, we follow. We trust him. He trusts us. Why not? Why not talk about winning it all and using it as motivation every day. When you’re tired in practice or in the game, that’s what I think about. That’s what gets me through. I want to do it for my brothers.”
Needless to say, there’s a very different mindset between Michigan and Illinois heading into tonight’s primetime top-five matchup. We’ll see how it translates onto the hardwood, but the folks in Ann Arbor are likely already stitching up the conference championship banner as we speak.