?A win over Michigan would put a tumultuous nonconference further behind the Illini

By Alex Roux

The story of the 2015 nonconference season has been written, and it’s one Illini basketball fans would like to leave in the past.

They know all about the injuries that threatened to derail the season before it barely had a chance to take shape. They remember the Springfield series that everyone besides North Florida and Chattanooga would like to forget. They’re still haunted by the missed opportunity at Providence to steal an improbable road win against a pretty good Friars team.

All of it made for one of the most difficult starts to an Illinois basketball season in the history of the program. The Illini are currently 8-5, and there are several ways to view their performance up to this point and their chances of competing the rest of the season.

An optimist would tell you that John Groce’s team has won five in a row after starting 3-5 and could easily be 10-3 or 11-2 if not for the injuries to Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black, Jaylon Tate, Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. If maybe just two of those guys avoided injury, the nonconference resume could look a lot prettier. And with the Big Ten shaping up to be weaker than most people expected — Illinois plays a very favorable schedule, facing Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland only once — the Illini could pick up enough conference wins to force their way back into the NCAA tournament picture.

A pessimist would tell you that Illinois is lucky to be three games over .500 after narrowly escaping embarrassing defeats against Chicago State and UIC. They’d say that Groce hasn’t solved the glaring issue of prolonged second-half scoring droughts. And with unsteady point guard play, horrid three-point defense and a decimated frontcourt, the Illini will be exposed over and over again in the Big Ten.

A reasonable evaluation of the 2015-16 Illini basketball team lies somewhere in between a doom-and-gloom take and a view through rose-colored glasses. Groce and his guys still have plenty of time to write their story this season, and a huge opportunity awaits them Wednesday if they hope to prove the optimists right.

Of all the teams in the Big Ten, none have tormented the Illini in Groce’s three-plus years at the helm like Michigan has. Wisconsin has been more dominant over Illinois in that span, but Michigan has stuck the knife in the Illini and twisted.

The Wolverines are 6-1 against Groce-led Illinois teams and have beaten the Illini in almost every conceivable way. There have been blowouts that were decided in the first half. There was a second-half Illini collapse in the conference opener last season. And Michigan ended Illinois’ slim NCAA tournament hopes in the last two Big Ten tournaments, first by heartbreak and then by humiliation.

“We’ve certainly played some teams with very good offenses, not only this year, but over the years,” Groce said. “If you asked me to name one team that’s been challenging to defend, Michigan’s probably the team that comes to mind.”

Here the Wolverines are again, the first of four good teams Illinois will face in a row to open conference play. If the Illini hope to avoid a nearly insurmountable Big Ten hole, the Michigan matchup Wednesday is nearly a must-win. A loss wouldn’t doom the season, but it’s hard to envision the Illini taking two of their next three at Ohio State and Michigan State before facing Purdue at home.

With all the injuries to key players, Illinois this season sort of resembles Michigan’s 16-16 team from last year. Major contributors Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. are now back and healthy for the Wolverines, and budding freshmen like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — both torched Illinois last year — are now sophomores getting steady minutes. Division III transfer Duncan Robinson is also shooting threes at a pace that would make Steph Curry blush, converting an absurd 47 of 79 from deep so far.

“You have to do a double-take,” Groce said of Robinson’s numbers. “I can’t recall ever seeing that (percentage) on that many attempts 13 games into a season, that percentage being that high from three.”

At 10-3, Michigan’s 3-point shooting strength has been what Illinois struggles most to defend. The Illini are still one of the worst teams in the country at protecting the perimeter, allowing opponents to convert 39 percent of the time. Michigan makes 42 percent of its threes and is the 10th-best 3-point shooting team in the country.

What seems like a bad matchup for the Illini on paper is compounded by the fact that Wolverine coach John Beilein has proven he can poke holes in Groce’s defenses time and time again. The players on the court have changed over three years, but Beilein’s offenses’ ability to move the ball inside and out and generate open looks against Illinois teams hasn’t.

Despite the unfavorable history and matchups, Illinois is certainly capable of winning Wednesday. They’ll have to do it without point guard Khalid Lewis, who, according to the Decatur Herald & Review’s Mark Tupper, is battling the mumps and is day-to-day. But if they can pull it off, an Illini victory over Michigan to open Big Ten play could help tilt the outlook of the season in the optimist’s favor.

“As I tell (the players), this isn’t biddy-ball,” Groce said of Big Ten play. “This is the big-time. So our guys are excited. I’m sure (Michigan’s) guys are excited. It’s a little bit like, we call it our second season. And I’m sure their guys are viewing it the same way.”

Alex is a senior in AHS.
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