Illinois must kick Michigan while it’s down

John Groce was an assistant on the 2005 Ohio State team that handed then-No. 1 Illinois its only regular season loss. Since becoming Illinois’ head coach, Groce is 1-5 against Ohio State.

Michigan basketball is an afterthought for Wolverine fans right now, and it should be. 

Michigan is currently struggling mightily, having lost four of its last five games as it enters Big Ten play with a 7-5 record. Two of those losses were highly publicized, highly embarrassing home defeats to NJIT and Eastern Michigan.

The Wolverines’ only win in that stretch was a 16-point victory over a Coppin State squad, one that lost 114-56 to Illinois and frankly has no business playing within 25 points of any respectable Division I team. 

So yes, Michigan hoops is down, but the intrigue surrounding Illinois’ Big Ten opener at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on Tuesday has gone way up. The added buzz is due to the expected introduction of ex-San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh as the new coach of Michigan football. The game is sold out, and StubHub prices have spiked as ticket-holders look to cash in on the hype.

The extra interest surrounding this Big Ten debut is cool, I guess. However, it has little bearing on the actual game Illinois will be participating in on Tuesday afternoon, save for an extra home court advantage if most of the sellout crowd stays past Harbaugh’s halftime introduction.

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You can bet Illini head coach John Groce and his team won’t be focusing on the maize and blue fanfare. They know each Big Ten game is important, and a hot start to the Big Ten season would be a great sign for a program that has been allergic to early conference play under Groce.

So while Michigan is busy celebrating Harbaugh’s clenched jaw and khaki pants, Illinois has a great opportunity to sneak out of Ann Arbor with a win. It’s crucial that they take advantage of this weird stretch of Wolverine basketball and kick Michigan while it’s down. 

Because as bad as Michigan has looked lately, it has the pieces to be a pretty solid team. Similar to Illinois, the Wolverines are thin on post play but can light it up from deep when their outside shooters get hot. 

Derrick Walton Jr. is a solid point guard who could give the Illini fits on Tuesday, and he has talented scorers like Caris LeVert (14.9 ppg) and Zak Irvin (15.3 ppg) to dish to. Junior guard Spike Albrecht has also shown he’s capable of catching fire offensively (think 2013 National Championship game) though he’s averaging just 4.6 points per game this season.

If you look at the common high-major opponents between the Illini and Wolverines, Michigan has fared much better. Michigan went toe-to-toe with undefeated Villanova, losing in the final seconds. The Wolverines also beat Oregon, 70-63. Illinois fell to Villanova and Oregon by a combined 21 points after falling apart late in both games. 

The key for Illinois is making sure Michigan doesn’t rediscover its early-season groove Tuesday. The Wolverines may very well be a dangerous team in conference play, and it could just be a matter of time before they figure it out.

For an Illinois team that plays four of its first five conference games on the road, a win Tuesday would be positive from multiple angles. First, it would take some of the pressure off the Illini to win Saturday at No. 20 Ohio State. A loss to the Wolverines increases the likelihood of Illinois being 0-2 in Big Ten play with No. 12 Maryland coming to town on Jan. 7. In turn, an opening loss increases the potential for the Illini to seriously stumble out of the gates in what Groce calls their “second season.”

Also, Groce should be sick of losing to Michigan. Fans should be sick of losing to Michigan. The Wolverines and their head coach John Beilein have owned the series lately, winning their last seven against Illinois and every matchup since Groce arrived in 2012-13.

Michigan also pretty much single-handedly derailed Illinois’ long-shot, resurrected NCAA tournament hopes last season when it beat the brakes off the Illini in Champaign before grinding out a 64-63 Big Ten Tournament victory in Indianapolis. A win Tuesday would give Illini fans a little closure from that last heartbreaking game and a reprieve from Michigan’s recent dominance in the series. 

It’s clear from the aura surrounding Tuesday’s game that Michigan is a football school. It’s equally obvious that Illinois is a basketball school.

Hopefully for Illinois, when Michigan fans leave Tuesday’s game, their only good memory is of a football coach in khakis holding a mike at midcourt.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.