After appearing as though it was completely deflated, there’s some signs of air in the Illini’s tournament bubble.
Now a lot would have to go right over the season’s closing stretch in order for the orange and blue to get into the NCAA tournament, but a lot has gone right in the past three games, all wins for John Groce’s team.
“Obviously we’ve made a lot of progress here in the last two-to-three weeks. The water’s started to boil a little bit for our team, which is good,” Groce said during a Monday press conference. “I think our defense is really starting to gain some ground just because we have more guys that understand what they’re supposed to be doing on a consistent basis. Their habits are better. Offensively I think we’re working harder to get good shots, which is always important.
“All in all I think we are getting better. We’re improving, which is what you want to be, that team that’s improving this time of year.”
Groce mentioned the defense, and that’s what’s been the key for Illinois during its three-game win streak. The Illini have held their last four opponents under 50 points, and road wins have come against Nebraska and Michigan State, potentially both tournament teams.
It’s that defense that’ll have to be cranked all the way to 11 on Tuesday, when conference-leading Michigan visits Champaign. The Wolverines have put on several offensive shows this season, many coming from shooting guard Nik Stauskas, one of six Big Ten players averaging more than 17 points per game. But they boast plenty of other weapons, too, making them a particularly difficult team to defend.
“Obviously (Tuesday’s) game is real challenging. Michigan’s a great team,” Groce said. “They’re very, very good on offense, second in America in offensive efficiency. They have multiple shooters, multiple weapons. They execute in half-court about as good as any team we’ve seen on film certainly this year, and we’ve played against some good ones. So that’ll be a challenge for sure, but we’re looking forward to it. Our defense has been good here lately. (Tuesday) night it will really be tested with their personnel, their system, their ability to execute. But we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Michigan can clinch an outright Big Ten regular-season title with a win Tuesday, but the stakes are higher for Illinois.
Tuesday is one of two opportunities left on the schedule to impress the selection committee. The Illini’s resume isn’t particularly strong, but this win streak has them back on the bubble. With ranked Michigan and Iowa teams the regular season’s final two opponents, the chances are there for Illinois to finish strong and get an invite to the Big Dance.
“I think it’s the greatest tournament in the world,” Groce said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”