CHAMPAIGN - Don't tell Dee Brown that Illinois can't win six straight games to earn the Big Ten Conference championship. He knows better.
Two years ago, Brown and James Augustine were sophomore starters on an Illini team which won its final 10 Big Ten games (six on the road) to claim an outright title.
After winning two home games last week, eighth ranked Illinois (22-4 overall, 8-4 Big Ten) controls its own fate in the league. Win out and the worst the Illini can do is tie for the Big Ten crown. But three of Illinois' last four games are on the road, starting with today's 6 p.m. contest against Michigan (17-7, 7-6) at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.
Illinois is 2-3 on the road in the Big Ten.
"It's possible, but you've got to go in with a different mentality," said Brown. "We have to work hard and believe we can do it."
The Big Ten schedule makers weren't kind to the Illini. Illinois is the only Big Ten team to twice have to play two games in three days, with the second game on the road both times. Illinois started the Big Ten season by beating Michigan State at home before losing at Iowa two days later.
This time, the Illini downed Indiana Sunday before hopping on an airplane Monday for Michigan. "People can sit back in offices and tell you it doesn't matter. They're wrong," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber of the short turnaround.
"They don't live it. It's something we've talked about in Big Ten meetings. They say it's part of being a good team. People want to see you on TV. I guess that's so. But it doesn't make it easy."
A victory today would put Illinois tied for the Big Ten lead with Iowa, which is off until facing the Illini at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Assembly Hall. Ohio State and Wisconsin share second with Illinois. Michigan State is fifth at 7-5, but the Spartans might have the most advantageous schedule in the last two weeks with three of four games at home.
Brown and Augustine will be going for their 111th victories as Illini players today, which would break the school record held by Nick Smith. They have never lost to Michigan, going 6-0 against the Wolverines as Illinois has won 11 straight in the series.
Illinois beat Michigan 79-74 on Jan. 14 at the Assembly Hall behind Brown's 26 points and Augustine's 23 points and nine rebounds. Daniel Horton led Michigan with 19 points.
Michigan won five straight games after losing to Illinois, moving into the thick of the Big Ten race. But four losses in the last five games has dropped the Wolverines to sixth place and put an NCAA tournament berth in question.
"I think all of our games will be must-win situations at some point," said Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. "I don't know if one win is going to make or break what we've done over the course of the season, but certainly it would help if we could have a win over a team like Illinois."
Injuries continue to hound the Wolverines. Guard Lester Abram has been out the last couple weeks with a left ankle sprain. Another starter, guard Dion Harris, missed two games with an ankle injury before playing 18 minutes in a 90-71 loss to Michigan State Saturday. Backup guard Jerret Smith also returned after a bout with mononucleosis forced him to miss four games.
But another body went down for Michigan Saturday. Forward Chris Hunter suffered a partial tear of his medial collateral ligament and is sidelined indefinitely.
Illinois knows Michigan will play with a desperate mentality.
"We have to step it up that extra notch and play hard," said Augustine.