By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) With Illinois trailing Michigan in the second half of the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, Illini junior Rayvonte Rice grabbed the basketball, raced down the court on a one-man fast break and leapt off the floor for a what looked to be a sure one-handed dunk.

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Instead, it resulted in an air ball.

“The ball just slipped out of my hand,” Rice sheepishly explained after a game the Illini ultimately lost 64-63. “There ain’t no other way to say it.”

And with that one-point loss to the Wolverines – one that ended with Tracy Abrams’ floater bouncing off the front of the rim as time expired – a huge upset of No. 1-seeded Michigan and a potential berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament also slipped out of the Illini’s hands.

There ain’t no other way to say it.

For Illinois, it was a quality finish to the regular season but a tough way to end it. After all, the Illini, who had won five of their previous six games, certainly had their shots to knock off a Wolverines squad that had crushed them 84-53 at State Farm Center only 10 days ago. But like Rice and Abrams, the Illini just couldn’t quite hit them.

So, while the season isn’t yet over for the Illini with the NIT likely looming, the season’s big dreams now are. And as Illinois waits this weekend to learn its exact postseason destination, the question is, which direction is head coach John Groce’s compass now pointing in the eyes of Illini nation?

I still say north. But that’s only as long as next season doesn’t go south.

When Groce was hired to replace the fired Bruce Weber in March 2012, the new coach’s wife, Allison, showed up for his introductory press conference in Champaign wearing an orange dress that she said she had coincidentally purchased six weeks earlier. When asked why she’d bought it, Allison simply said, “I love orange.”

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Following that presser, I wrote in a column, “There’s a great chance that Illini nation will also come to love John Groce. He’s a good hire. With the right staff, he could be a very good one. In time, the man tied with Penn State’s Patrick Chambers as the youngest coach in the Big Ten could even become a great one. Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

And after two full regular seasons, I would say the same thing. We’re still waiting and seeing – but I do like most of what I’ve seen so far.

In two years, what what we’ve learned most clearly about Groce is that his teams don’t quit, and it’s unwise to count them out, even if they lose six of seven Big Ten games like they did in 2013 or lose eight of them in a row as they did this season.

Groce isn’t a perfect coach. He had an awfully rough signing day this past fall and made some coaching miscues down the stretch against Michigan, most notably when he switched away from a zone defense late and also failed to call a timeout before the shot clock expired on Illinois’ second-to-last possession. Nevertheless, I do think he’s an awfully good coach – one who still has put together solid recruiting classes in spite of letdowns and one who drew up a final play against Michigan that got Abrams to the right spot, even if the shot didn’t end up going in.

I believe that most Illini fans would agree about that about that assessment and acknowledge that with the way the team has rebounded from the abyss this season, Groce has cobbled good feelings back together after some more impatient segments of the Illini fan base had begun to sour midway through the Big Ten.

Coming into the 2013-14 season, most Illinois fans knew this year would likely involve a step back for the program – which it has been – but were hoping it would lead to a leap forward next year.

Based on what we’ve seen from budding freshmen starters Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, the late-season resurgences of veterans Nnanna Egwu and Abrams and the potent scoring ability of Rice, I think hopes are indeed high for next season. Toss in the expected offensive impact of the three transfers – Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul – who will become eligible next fall, and I think they rise even higher.

This afternoon following the heartbreaking Michigan loss, Marcus Jackson of the Champaign News-Gazette wrote, “Give John Groce’s guys tons of credit for rallying against the Big Ten champs. Though the end is a bummer for the fans, the program’s best days are ahead of it.”

I think so, too. But now John Groce & Co. have to start proving it.

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Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.