According to John Groce, Michigan played like LeBron James on Tuesday night.
“It’s like LeBron. I saw his press conference after he had 61. He said he felt like he was throwing a golf ball in an ocean,” Groce said during his post game press conference following Illinois’ 84-53 loss to Michigan. “And that’s what it looked like for them tonight shooting the ball.”
The Wolverines buried the Illini with a scoring barrage this orange-and-blue group hasn’t seen in weeks. The Illinois defense had used strong defense to build a three-game winning streak and work its way back to the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble, holding its last four opponents under 50 points heading into Tuesday night’s game in Champaign.
That streak, though, ended in a hurry. Michigan had 52 points by the end of the first half.
“Lately we’ve been playing great defense,” Illinois guard Rice said, “and they were just knocking down every shot they got. Every open shot they got I think they knocked down.”
It wasn’t exactly every shot, but it was pretty close. The Wolverines shot 56.9 percent from the field and an incredible 69.6 percent from 3-point range, splashing home 16 of their 23 3-point attempts. Nik Stauskas had himself another huge night, going for 24 points and hitting seven 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, the Illini shot just 38.5 percent from the field and made just two 3-pointers.
“When you get an outcome like today, a good team like ours or certainly a team that had been playing really well of late has to play really poor and a really good to great team like them has to play great,” Groce said. “And that’s what happened today. They played terrific.”
The Wolverines played terrific enough to clinch their first outright regular-season Big Ten title since 1986 on the Illini’s home floor.
But as Michigan continued its strong play heading toward the madness of March, the Illini might have watched their already long shot at earning an invitation to the Big Dance disappear. The opportunities were there, with games remaining against ranked Michigan and Iowa teams, but after the loss to Michigan, it appears only a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament can get Illinois to the NCAA tournament.
As well as the Illini had been playing, the Wolverines are a cut above. And they proved it Tuesday.
“It’s a lot more fun when you’re on the positive side of the perfect storm than the negative side,” Groce said.
As for playing like LeBron, it’s unknown how James, a noted Ohio State fan, will appreciate that comparison to the Buckeyes’ chief rival.