CHICAGO — The good news for Illinois fans if they will not have to sweat on Selection Sunday. The bad news is there will be no tension because everybody knowns the Fighting Illini are NIT bound for the second straight year under coach John Groce.
Illinois entered the Big Ten Tournament on a bubble, needing at the very least to win their first game against Michigan to have a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the Illi fell on their face with a 73-55 loss to the Wolverines, ending their hopes of going dancing.
“They just threw the first punch, and we was just unable to answer,” senior guard Rayvonte Rice said.
Illinois led 19-17 12 minutes into the game before Michigan rattled off a 12-0 run.
The Illini, trailing 29-21, suffered a crucial mistake as freshman forward Leron Black followed a charging foul with a technical at the 3:02 mark of the first half.
Michigan guard Spike Albrecht made the two technical free throws and then nailed a deep 3-pointer on the ensuing possession.
“My assistant says, that’s a hard shot,” Groce said. “I said, no, it’s karma. Don’t get the technical foul. We’ve got to be more poised than that.”
Illinois looked dead after that sequence. Michigan’s lead grew as large as 24 points in the second half.
“Regardless of what we have riding or anything,” senior forward Nnanna Egwu said, “at the end of the day when we play for Illinois, we’ve got to play with effort. The last two games we didn’t do that for 40 minutes and that’s the reason we lost.”
Illinois had some good wins earlier in the season that show this team is capable of winning NCAA Tournament games. The Illini won games against Baylor and Michigan State away from home. They also knocked off Maryland at the State Farm Center.
However, at this point the bad losses have piled up too much. With a total of four losses against Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska plus defeats to bubble teams Miami (Fla.), Indiana and Purdue, the Illini have fallen to the eighth team out of the NCAA Tournament field in The Catch and Shoot’s Bracketology.
“We can’t control what the committee decides, but we’re just going to look at the film tomorrow, see what we can get better at and see where we end up,” Rice said.
Almost certainly, Rice and his teammates will end up as one of the higher seeds in the NIT.