11:00 March 9, 2017
Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS
Hey, who picked Rutgers over Ohio State? Penn State over Nebraska? Actually, I would have picked the 13th-seeded Nittany Lions to beat the 12th-seed Huskers, but I certainly didn’t see cellar-dwellers Rutgers pulling off a tournament win over Thad Matta’s Buckeyes. That’s a bad loss for Ohio State. The Big Ten has been unpredictable all year, and that turbulence is continuing into the conference tournament.
Speaking of turbulence, both Illinois and Michigan had a rough time getting through high winds to DC. The Illini made it to the capitol, but not without some heart-stopping drops worthy of Six Flags’ most intense coasters. Michigan’s team didn’t even get off the ground. Winds were so strong in Ann Arbor that the plane’s attempted takeoff was aborted, and the plane slid off the runway as the pilot hit the brakes. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but the plane sustained heavy damage. No doubt it was a scary experience.
The Wolverines’ revised travel plans had them meeting this morning at 6:00 for a 7:30 flight to DC. They landed around 9:00 EST with three hours to spare before the noon tipoff. Now that everyone has safely arrived, the big question for Illinois fans is whether yesterday’s scare and today’s late arrival will affect Michigan on the court.
The Illini split their two games with the Wolverines, beating Michigan by 16 at home and then losing by 9 on the road in a game they trailed by 20 at one point. Both teams have played better down the stretch. The Illini have won 5 of 8, with victories over Northwestern (twice) and Michigan State. They’ve lost to Rutgers, Minnesota, and Penn State. Michigan has emerged victorious in 6 of 8. Big wins in that run include triumphs over Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Purdue. The two losses have come at Minnesota (by 5) and at Northwestern (by 2 on that last second full-court pass). In terms of credibility, the Wolverines’ run has been more impressive, but you can only play the games on the schedule, and Illinois’ schedule was front-loaded and fortunate. Of the top four conference teams this season (Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Minnesota), Illinois played only Maryland twice. The Illini went 0-5 in those contests.
Illinois still has work to do to make the tournament. They definitely need a win over Michigan today to stay in the conversation. There are folks out there who think that win may be enough, depending on what happens with other bubble teams. It’s more likely, however, that Illinois needs at least 2 wins to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday. Lose today or tomorrow, and it’s likely we’ll have a chance to buy NIT tickets for a game at the SFC. As of this morning, ESPN has Michigan locked into a spot in the 68-team field, with the Illini still in contention.
As to Groce’s future, there doesn’t seem to be much chatter of late. Everyone is waiting to see what happens with the postseason. We’ll see. In any case, big game today!