On Thursday afternoon, Illinois and Michigan tipped off for the first Thursday game of the 2017 Big Ten Tournament. Although the Wolverines were delayed in arriving (thanks to a terrifying airplane incident on Wednesday), the two teams tipped off around 12:30 p.m. eastern for a game with major NCAA implications.
However, while Michigan may have been slowed down by airplane trouble, it was Illinois who had trouble on the court. The Wolverines raced out to an early lead and never looked back. Ultimately, Michigan won by a 75-55 final score.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. Michigan Can Win The Big Ten Tournament.
Ever since Michigan lost to Illinois in mid-January, things have been different for the team. There have certainly been bumps along the way, but the Wolverines have continued to improve game-by-game and week-by-week.
And after blowing out Illinois on Thursday, Michigan made a major statement about what the team is hoping to accomplish in Washington, D.C. Michigan has won seven of its last nine games, including five wins by double-digits and wins over Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Knocking off Purdue will be a tall task for Michigan on Friday afternoon, but it’s time to take notice of the Wolverines. This team is going to be a major threat to the Boilermakers tomorrow and, if Michigan can pull off the upset, it will be a major threat to take home the Big Ten Tournament crown on Sunday evening.
2. Can Michigan Get A Seven Seed?
As mentioned, the last few weeks have been fun ones for Wolverine fans. The team has solidified its spot in the NCAA Tournament and now, just needs to figure out where the team will land on Selection Sunday.
But where can Michigan land?
As of Thursday, most bracketologists had Michigan ranked between an eight and a 10 seed. The Wolverines were always in the field, but, more often than not, looking at a potential matchup against a one seed in the Round of 32. Obviously, that’s not a position that Wolverine fans were hoping to see.
So, where can Michigan land in bracket?
Well, Thursday’s win certainly solidified Michigan’s position as an eight seed, at least. Not only is Illinois a good enough team to offer an RPI boost, but Michigan now ensured that it can only lose one more game, which would likely come against a nationally ranked opponent. In other words, that win was a major development.
However, if Michigan can knock off Purdue (again, a nationally ranked team) and then beat another NCAA Tournament team in Michigan State or Minnesota? In that scenario, it would be hard to keep Michigan out of at least a seven seed.
3. The NCAA Dream Dies For Illinois.
Following Illinois’ embarrassing loss to Penn State on February 11th, I wrote an article saying the time had come to move on from John Groce. I’ll talk about Groce below, but immediately after that loss to Penn State, Illinois appeared to turn things around. The Illini won four straight games, including two road games and a win over Northwestern.
While many opted to jump on the Illini bandwagon after this run, I never quite bought into the hype. Not because the run wasn’t impressive, but because everything had to go perfectly for Illinois to make the NCAA Tournament. Solid wouldn’t be good enough. Illinois needed to avoid any major mistakes.
And boy, did those mistakes hit in the last week.
Illinois started by losing to Rutgers last Saturday. That loss speaks for itself. The Illini then followed that up on Thursday by getting their doors blown off by Michigan. A Michigan team that, by the way, barely had enough time in D.C. to complete their warm-up routine and one that Illinois called “white collar” earlier this season.
It was an embarrassing loss for numerous reasons, but the most consequential effect of the loss is that it ends Illinois’ hopes of an NCAA Tournament appearance. Illinois will now miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
4. It’s Time To Move On From John Groce.
I wrote my piece on Groce in early February, but my thoughts haven’t changed. It’s time for Illinois to move on from Groce. There’s simply no excuse for the performances that his teams continue to put up in Champaign.
And for some perspective?
Under Groce’s leadership, Illinois has been eliminated by Michigan on three separate occasions in the Big Ten Tournament. Two of those were complete blowouts and one came in heartbreaking fashion in Groce’s second year. It’s also worth noting that Illinois needed wins in all three of those games to have NCAA Tournament hopes.
During the four recruiting cycles between 2013 and 2016, Michigan landed one more four-star (or better) recruit than Illinois did during that same span.
And during that span, Michigan won the Big Ten regular season title, went to the Elite Eight in 2014, and will have gone to three of the last four NCAA Tournaments. Illinois didn’t even make the Tournament once during that span.
It’s time to move on.
Thursday’s win was an emotional one for the Wolverines. It was a bizarre experience to watch, but one that everyone was happy to see, given what could have happened to Michigan on Wednesday evening.
On the other side, it was a rough day for Illinois. The program will now have to move ahead with some tough decisions looming. Illini will likely head to the NIT and Michigan will move on to face Purdue on Friday.