Michigan blasts Illinois in Big Ten tournament

When I left the United Center in December following Oregon’s 77-70 defeat of Illinois, I thought that Illini fans couldn’t possibly leave that building feeling any worse than they did that night.

I was wrong. 

Michigan crushed Illinois, 73-55, in an 8-seed vs. 9-seed matchup at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. It was an embarrassing performance for an Illini team fighting for an NCAA tournament berth against an injury-riddled Wolverine squad.

For the second straight game at United Center, Illinois fans filed out wondering what happened to the “toughness and togetherness” of their team, and how they could have possibly lost so badly, considering the stakes.

If you’re Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, this isn’t the image you want to portray to your main alumni base and media market in Chicago.

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    But this result has more immediate, hard-hitting implications. Illinois is now almost certainly eliminated from NCAA tournament consideration, which would mean a second straight trip to the NIT for the Illini under head coach John Groce.

    It will be the first time Illinois has missed the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years since 1991-92. 

    How did this happen? The game started at 11 a.m., and as cliché as it sounds, it really looked like the Illini players were still asleep out there. Two of the first three Illini shots were airballs, and Michigan jumped out to a 14-2 lead.

    There was a burst of hope for Illinois when backup point guard Jaylon Tate and reserve forward Leron Black entered the game and spurred the Illini to a 13-0 run on the way to a 19-17 lead. But Michigan answered, ending the half on a 23-4 run behind hot shooting from Zak Irvin (14 points ), Aubrey Dawkins (18 points) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman (15 points). A Leron Black technical foul late in the first half didn’t help the Illini’s cause.

    Facing a 40-23 halftime deficit, I thought Groce should have started the second half with Tate running the point. It just wasn’t starting point guard Ahmad Starks’ day out there, and he appeared to be battling an illness or allergies of some sort on the bench. But Groce kept Tate on the bench to begin the half, and Michigan didn’t let up. 

    The Wolverines kept doing what they did all day; what they’ve done to the Illini almost exclusively in the three years that Groce and Michigan coach John Beilein have gone head-to-head: they moved the ball crisply, cut hard to the basket, drained open threes, and utilized the pick-and-roll to near perfection.

    Michigan is now 6-1 against Illinois since Groce took over three years ago.

    The Illini stayed ice cold shooting the ball in the second half, and game was all but over with 16 minutes to go. Something about the Illinois players’ demeanor was off nearly all game, and they looked nothing like the hard-nosed, gritty squad that we’ve come to expect under Groce. 

    No, Thursday was different. Gone was the fight we saw last year in this same tournament against a much more talented Michigan squad. Last year’s Illini team fell short of the NCAAs as well, but they went down scratching and clawing until the bitter end.

    It’s hard to adequately put into words the anguish that Illini fans are feeling after witnessing the final nail in the coffin of a late-season collapse, since fan emotions are currently ranging from apathetic to outrage. The best word I can think of is “sadness.”

    Sadness for Illini senior Rayvonte Rice, who was a beast in his two years in an Illini uniform, but will never get to play in an NCAA tournament game. Sadness for fellow senior Nnanna Egwu, who worked and competed and represented his school in extremely admirable fashion, but will finish his career in the NIT. Sadness for an Illini fan base that is just aching for national relevancy again. 

    Groce has said on several occasions that come March, teams “are who they are.” Illinois will have a chance to redeem itself somewhat in the NIT, but the team we saw Thursday was certainly not the team Groce and many fans expected it to be. 

    Alex is a junior in AHS.

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