Michigan State could be biggest game of Groce’s career

Illinois+Tracy+Abrams+%2813%29+brings+the+ball+up+the+court+during+the+game+against+Penn+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Saturday%2C+February+11.+The+Illini+lost+83-70.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (13) brings the ball up the court during the game against Penn State at State Farm Center on Saturday, February 11. The Illini lost 83-70.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Columnist

Tonight marks the end of the Illinois men’s basketball team’s regular season home games. But, it could very well be the start of serious discussion regarding its postseason hopes, as Illinois hosts Michigan State in the most crucial game of the season.

The Illini’s recent hot streak has spurred dialogue about the NCAA Tournament featuring this year’s team from Champaign. In fact, USA Today released a bracketology update yesterday that featured Illinois as one of the last four teams in the tourney.

That means there are huge implications at stake Wednesday against the Spartans. Tom Izzo’s club enters tonight 6-2 in its last eight games. However, this Illinois team has a realistic opportunity to pull off the win and improve its chances at a postseason push.

Illinois has been going streaking since its Feb. 18 win over Iowa, and the team needs to keep the momentum riding. Illinois is currently on a three-game win streak and is 4-1 in its last five games.

This team has made drastic strides since earlier this season. The Illini are shooting the ball well from the field, finding the open man and getting after things on defense. In the last five games, the Illini are shooting about 46 percent from the field, and they’ve accumulated 25 percent of the season’s overall steals.

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    But the biggest influence on this game may not be a tangible statistic.

    A big factor is that it’s Senior Night. The Illini are going to have to trust some of their seniors – mainly Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams.

    I’m a firm believer in the Senior Night effect. As of Feb. 27, Big Ten teams have been 3-0 in their Senior Nights. There is something to be said about seniors playing their last ever home game, and it can impact Illinois.

    Abrams is the only one of the six Illinois seniors who has been to an NCAA Tournament, and it’s because he redshirted the last two seasons due to injury. The rest of the bunch has to be yearning for a chance to make a tournament appearance, especially Hill who has certainly made his mark on the program. With Illinois recently getting into the mix, it’s slowly becoming a reality.

    This Senior Night should be extra special because of the anticipated crowd of the game.

    I expect State Farm Center to be packed with so many different elements in play. It’s the last regular season home game of the year, students were offered free tickets and this is arguably the biggest game of Groce’s career.

    There has been a lot of debate in regards to Groce’s future with Illinois. After a rough stretch of games, many people were calling for him to be fired. That mood has since shifted more to neutral. Tonight could either be the last straw on the camel’s back or a breath of new hope into Groce’s career with the Illini.

    A loss and the coaching carousel will likely resume,  continuing to add more names to the mix.

    A win and Groce has a chance for redemption after a poor start to conference play. A win also gives Groce a real shot at pursuing one of the 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament. It would be his second appearance in five years as head coach and the first tourney birth since his inaugural season.

    Matt is a junior in Business.

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    @MattGertsmeier