Illinois to open Big Ten Tournament against Michigan

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Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. (10) drives to the basket against UCLA’s Xavier Simpson in the first half on Dec. 10, 2016, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Lucas Wright, Staff writer

Survive and advance is the name of the game for the rest of the Illinois men’s basketball schedule as the team heads to the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois’ slim NCAA tournament hopes are now on the line, and first up is Michigan in the No. 8/No. 9 seed matchup.

The Illini have played the Wolverines twice during the Big Ten regular season, splitting the series 1-1. However, the upcoming matchup may not have much resemblance to the prior meetings.

It’s been 46 days since the last meeting between the two teams and each has come a long way. Illinois and Michigan entered that game with each team at 2-4 in conference play, but lately the teams have been on a tear through the conference schedule.

The Wolverines have won six of their last eight and the Illini have won five of their last seven games, despite dropping their last matchup at Rutgers.

“Certainly they have added things since we played them in the past, but we have as well,” head coach John Groce said. “On offense, their ball movement and shot making (has improved), and just on defense they have continued to grow and get better.”

The offense Groce mentioned has not just been playing well, but has been playing at of the most efficient rates in the conference.

Michigan sports a plus-nine scoring margin to go along with 48 percent field goal shooting and 38.6 percent three-point shooting percentage — each of which is in the top-three in the Big Ten.

A large part of the Wolverines’ strong offensive attack is due to senior guard and All-Big Ten Second Team member Derrick Walton Jr.

Walton comes in averaging 16.1 points and two and a half three-pointers per game in conference play.

Walton also set the Michigan all-time record for assists in a game with 16 in a win at Nebraska.

Michigan has four players averaging in double digits, but the offense flows through its point guard.

At this point, Illinois’ chances of moving forward to the NCAA tournament are up in the air. While it seems clear that a win over Michigan is vital, there are mixed reports of what is actually needed from the Illini.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Illinois in the “First Four Out” of his tournament bracket, but shake-ups in conference tournaments across the nation have kept the Illini moving around in his groupings.

A win over Michigan would be a step in the right direction for Illinois, but there is no telling if that will be enough to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Regardless, Groce said his team is focusing on what it can control at this point.

“It’s that time of year (when) it’s neat for our guys to be playing for something,” Groce said. “It’s a privilege, and we’re excited about that, but we’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”

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