Michigan blows Illinois out of Big Ten Tournament opener, off NCAA Tournament bubble -- again

Despite unprecedented adversity, Michigan delivers another knockout blow to Illinois -- and maybe John Groce -- in Big Ten Tournament

Michigan 75, Illini 55

What happened

WASHINGTON D.C. - Even in practice uniforms, Michigan is great at bursting Illinois basketball's bubble.

For the third time in four seasons, the Wolverines landed a knockout punch of Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament -- and a death blow for the Illini's NCAA Tournament hopes.

Illinois (18-14) appeared to be the team that stepped onto a plane just six hours before tipoff and entered the arena 80 minutes before the scheduled tipoff. Despite unprecedented adversity and an already punched NCAA Tournament ticket, Michigan (21-11) was the aggressor from the start, claiming an 31-11 lead within the first 13 minutes of the game.

The Illini answered with a 15-2 run -- sparked by a personal 10-0 run by Tracy Abrams -- to cut the deficit to 33-26. But Michigan went on a 7-1 run and took a 40-29 lead into the half.

The Wolverines, which shot 53.6 percent from the field (including 59.6 percent in the first half), led by double digits for most of the second half. Derrick Walton Jr. led Michigan with 19 points. Zak Irvin added 18, and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 17.

Abrams (23 points on 9-for-13 shooting) was the only Illini to finish in double-digit points. All-Big Ten Second Team selection Malcolm Hill scored four points on 1-for-8 shooting. Michael Finke added eight points and seven rebounds.

The Wolverines boarded a 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time flight and didn't arrive at the Verizon Center until 80 minutes before the scheduled noon tipoff. With its team gear still on the plane that slid off the runway on Wednesday afternoon following an aborted takeoff due to high winds, Michigan was forced to wear practice uniforms. 

In his five-year tenure at Illinois, John Groce is 2-9 against Michigan coach John Beilein.

What it means

If this is the end of the John Groce era, it is fitting. Michigan has eliminated Illinois from the Big Ten Tournament three of the last four  years -- all when Illinois seemed just one win away from an NCAA Tournament berth. Firing Groce is the easy decision.

Through five seasons, Groce -- who was hired by Whitman's predecessor Mike Thomas -- has a 95-75 overall record (.559 winning percentage) and 37-53 Big Ten regular season record (.411). Groce has led the Illini to just one NCAA Tournament appearance during his tenure and that was in 2013, his first season at Illinois. The Illini haven't finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten in Groce's five seasons and haven't made an NCAA Tournament for four straight seasons, the first time that has happened at Illinois since 1980.

Those numbers are worse than the man he replaced. During his last five seasons of his nine-year tenure, Bruce Weber -- who led Illinois to two Big Ten titles and a national championship runner-up finish in his first two seasons -- went 98-73 overall and 41-49 in the Big Ten with two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Attendance is way down. Fan apathy appears at an all-time high. Illinois has a talented recruiting class coming in but loses three seniors who made a big impact and likely will be predicted to be one of the bottom six teams in the conference yet again.

Whitman has built up a lot of goodwill since he hired Lovie Smith to spark his football program. Will he really waste it on keeping an under-performing coach he didn't hire?

While other Big Ten athletic directors have voiced support for struggling coaches in recent days (Nebraska, Penn State and Ohio State), Whitman has remained silent. No legitimate leaks have occurred either.

But we will soon learn what Whitman has in mind for his department's most beloved program.

What went right

Unlike some of his senior teammates, Abrams looked like he didn't want to go home. The kid has been all heart for six years. Finke also battled.

What went wrong

Where's the fight? Which team woke up Thursday morning in another state? Which team was playing for its NCAA Tournament life? Like so many games earlier this season, Illinois showed no fight, no composure and no basketball IQ on the road/neutral site game against a good opponent. Whether its their Big Ten record to start seasons or double-digit deficits to start games, John Groce teams have a trend of digging themselves too big a hole of which they can climb out.

No defense. After this team's early Big Ten struggles, you figure this team would've learned that it can't win without playing defense. Illinois couldn't guard anyone to start the game. Open threes. Open layups. Open transition shots.

Turnovers. Michigan scored 16 points off 14 Illini turnovers.

Seniors die ... with a whimper. While Abrams played well, Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan (four points, three rebounds) added little potentially in their  final games as Illini (if the Illini elect not to play in the N.I.T.). Hill struggled to find his shot against Michigan's length, forced shots and turned it over three  times. He also looked injured and ran with a heavy limp late in the game. And Morgan -- who called Michigan a "white-collar" team after the Illin's 85-69 win over the Wolverines in January -- didn't play with much of an edge. He was ridiculously sloppy with the ball (five turnovers) and sophomore Moe Wagner shut him down one-on-one. As good as the senior duo has been all year, that's not how you want to leave.

Out-coached. Beilein is 9-2 against Groce's Illini. He has an identity. He has a system. His players run that system well. His teams improve throughout the season, and players take big leaps from month to month and season to season. Illinois needs a coach who can have a similar impact.

What's next

Illini nation awaits word from Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman on whether Groce will be retained. Oh, and whether Illinois will play in the N.I.T. For the first time in a long time, the State Farm Center is available to host the first few rounds. But do the Illini want to play in the N.I.T., who would coach them and how many fans would actually show up?

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