Last chance for Illinois basketball as tournament run starts with Michigan

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Last chance for Illinois basketball as tournament run starts with Michigan

By Alex Roux

Here we are again.

For the fourth consecutive year, Illinois basketball finds itself in the No. 8 seed vs. No. 9 seed game at the Big Ten tournament. As the previous three Big Ten tournaments have shown, (the Illini were dumped in each before the semifinals) it’s not the most enviable position to be in.

The No. 8 Illini will face No. 9 Michigan Thursday at 11 a.m. at the United Center in Chicago for the third matchup of the season between the two teams; they split the previous two meetings.

The Illini and Wolverines are both interesting teams, and have played two highly entertaining overtime games this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the third affair comes down to the wire as well. But the hype of this game will be diminished by its inherent nature; the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game usually just earns the right to be beaten by the tournament’s No. 1 seed.

Illinois has faced the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament in each of the last two years and has been bounced both times — last year’s one-point loss to No. 1 Michigan was a heartbreaker for the Illini. This year, Wisconsin awaits the winner of Illinois/Michigan, and the Badgers outmatch either team by a wide margin.

Michigan would need to run the table and win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament, which is about as likely as Jim Harbaugh being fired in his first season as the football coach in Ann Arbor. But Illinois’ postseason script isn’t written yet, and the general belief is that the Illini need to beat both Michigan and Wisconsin to ensure a spot in the Big Dance.

With their current situation on the NCAA bubble, it’s unfortunate that the Illini couldn’t avoid the No. 8 vs. No 9 game. Wisconsin looks unbeatable right now, and Illinois hasn’t shown any capability of even competing with the Badgers since Illini head coach John Groce took over almost three years ago.

While I’m sure Bucky Badger is doing his best to haunt the corners of Groce’s mind right now, the Illini have to first worry about Michigan and Michigan only. Though decimated by injuries and sporting a 15-15 record, the Wolverines have proven that they’re going to give any team they face a battle.

Because it’s the third meeting between the two teams, Illinois should have a good idea of how to contain Michigan. The top priority is slowing down leading-scorer Zak Irvin (14 points per game), who can nail threes and score inside at a versatile 6-foot-6. The emergence of freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has given the Wolverines some additional firepower from the wing, and Illini fans won’t forget how Dawkins torched the Illini for 20 points in Michigan’s Dec. 30 win.

Like Illinois, Michigan likes to use a high pick-and-roll scheme to create space and attack lanes for guards. Unlike Illinois, Michigan can be very effective at hitting the man rolling to the basket for some easy buckets. 

The Wolverines used this tactic over and over to beat Illinois in the first meeting this season, and it was a high pick-and-roll between Nik Stauskas and Jordan Morgan that doomed the Illini on Michigan’s final play of the aforementioned one-point Illini loss in last year’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

The Illini must defend the pick-and-roll effectively, and should be able to do so as they’ve seen it enough from Michigan.

Illinois can’t afford to save its A-game for Wisconsin, because it can be beat by Michigan if it shows up with anything less Thursday morning. The NCAA tournament is on the line, so this game should be treated like an NCAA tournament game by the Illini. It’s do or die. Leave everything on the court.

I have no doubt Illinois seniors Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu and Ahmad Starks will show a high level of intensity with their careers on the line. It’s up to the rest of their team to match it.

A win over Michigan and a loss to Wisconsin technically leaves a small window for the Illini to sneak into the Big Dance if luck breaks their way. 

But one thing is certain: An Illinois loss to Michigan would eliminate any hope of a tournament berth.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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@aroux94