Illini basketball faces Michigan in Big Ten tournament opener

Illinois men’s basketball head coach John Groce.

By Nicholas Fortin

Illinois head coach John Groce always brings four suits with him to the Big Ten tournament.

While the Illinois men’s basketball team has yet to make it to the Big Ten tournament championship game in Groce’s first two seasons, he will still bring multiple suits to Chicago this weekend, just in case the Illini make a deep run in the tournament.

In order for Groce to wear the full wardrobe, Illinois (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) will need to first get past Michigan (15-15, 8-10) on Thursday at the United Center.

“Everyone’s hope is that you’re in Chicago for a while,” Groce said.

The Illini know the Wolverines well. Illinois’ second-round tournament game will be the third time the teams compete this season.

Both games went to overtime, but with differing results. The Illini dropped the first game at Michigan 73-65 on Dec. 30, but picked up a 64-52 win at home on Feb. 12.

Groce said that while the teams have added wrinkles to their play, both Illinois and Michigan have a good understanding of their opponent.

“You get in conference tournament play and you are who you are for the most part,” Groce said.

Michigan has played erratically to end the season, splitting its last four games. Although the record suggests inconsistency, Groce said the Wolverines’ offense has improved.

“They are really, really playing well,” Groce said. “(They’re) very unselfishly, executing well. They’ve been terrific offensively in the last several games.”

After losing junior guard Caris LeVert to injury earlier in the year, the Wolverines were forced to adapt.

Freshman guard Aubrey Dawkins has stepped up, closing the year with a 31-point game against Rutgers, in which he made eight 3-pointers.

Groce said Illinois will need to stifle Dawkins, junior guard Spike Albrecht and senior forward Max Bielfeldt.

Illinois, like Michigan, has been forced to deal with similar roster changes all season and has handled the transition equally well.

Since coming back from injury and suspension, senior guard Rayvonte Rice has averaged over 16.5 points per game, energized the Illini and led the team to two wins in its last three games down the stretch.

Rice said he and fellow seniors Ahmad Starks and Nnanna Egwu have been big for the Illini to close out the regular season because they realize how little time they have left in Illini orange.

“Just knowing that that ticker is ticking,” Rice said. “We don’t have too many of these left.”

Egwu added that, while the seniors are reenergized, the rest of the team must also buy in for the Illini.

“If you lose, you’re out,” Egwu said. “That’s the big thing: to survive and advance at this point. We’ve got to find a way to get the whole team with that same sense of urgency.”

Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill said the Illini aren’t concerned with bracketology and are instead focusing solely on Michigan.

No matter how comfortable the Illini feel in their knowledge of the Wolverines, Egwu said the only thing that will determine how many suits Groce gets to wear during the tournament is how the team plays Thursday morning.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how much you’ve prepared,” Egwu said. “It’s all about going on the court and executing, while playing hard at the same time.”

[email protected]