Whenever they take the court for a game, the University of Michigan basketball team proudly wears warmup shirts featuring the phrase “Wolverine Destiny” etched across their chests. On Thursday, the Wolverines’ destiny was to burst Illinois‘ NCAA bubble.
Facing their most important contest of the 2014-15 season, the Illini fizzled throughout, falling behind early before surrendering a 19-2 run late in the first half during a disheartening 73-55 setback in their Big 10 Tournament opener at the United Center in Chicago.
The loss served as the culmination of a season-ending stretch of five losses in seven games for coach John Groce’s team. Most disturbing was Illinois’ inability to contain a Michigan offense playing without its top-two players in Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. Even without their top offensive threats, the short-handed Wolverines managed to score both inside and out, racking up 49.2 percent shooting while having four players score in double figures.
For Illinois, the loss also dealt their NCAA Tournament hopes a catastrophic blow. Most analysts felt the Illini needed at least two wins in the Big 10 tourney to warrant an invite to the Big Dance. Illinois now heads back to Champaign-Urbana without even a single victory in the conference tournament. Add it all up and Selection Sunday will likely be a depressing day.
James Blackmon, Jr. was fabulous, scoring 25 points while dishing out seven assists with just one turnover in 32 minutes against the Wildcats. If the gifted freshman can continue on that path, it would likely be enough for Indiana to push Maryland hard in the Big 10 quarterfinals. Currently, the Hoosiers’ RPI rating stands at 54. A win over the Terrapins could vault Indiana into the top-50 and therefore inch them closer to an NCAA bid.
As for Purdue, the Boilermakers are still considered on the bubble due to their RPI rating of 58. Matt Painter’s team appears to be in good shape because of their 12 conference wins, but things are far from guaranteed for a Boilermaker team that had significant ground to make up due to a lackluster non-conference campaign. Nevertheless, if the Boilermakers can down Michigan State on Friday, they will bolster their resume just in time for the selection committee.