By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) The University of Michigan band has been asked back early from winter break. Ticket prices for the Wolverines’ Big Ten hoops opener are reportedly through the roof. And across the country, all eyes will be on Ann Arbor this afternoon.
But it isn’t because the Illinois Fighting Illini are in town.
Or even that John Beilein’s Michigan basketball team is.
Rather, all the hoopla is because some guy named Jim Harbaugh is supposed to be introduced at Crisler Arena during Michigan’s 2 p.m. game against Illinois on Tuesday. Apparently, he coaches football, and the folks up in Ann Arbor really care about that sort of thing.
As a result, the arrival of the school’s new khaki-clad rock star direct from the NFL means that Michigan’s hoops arena should be rocking much more than it would be if the underachieving Wolverines basketball team (7-5) was the only attraction on tap.
Harbaugh’s anticipated appearance at Michigan is inconvenient for the 10-3 Illini, although Illinois coach John Groce told reporters on Monday, “We always say the louder the better, the bigger stage the better. We relish opportunities like that.”
What Illini fans would relish most after a ho-hum nonconference campaign is a win over the Wolverines to start the Big Ten off with a bang. And as Illinois heads into its crucial conference season with designs on returning to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence, here are a few thoughts about where Groce’s team currently stands and where it needs to be in order to make 2015 a success.
Big Ten, big time
At Illinois, Tim Beckman’s sorry record in Big Ten football games has received a great deal of scrutiny. But so far, Groce’s own lackluster league mark in basketball has yet to be put under a similar spotlight.
Now is the time for Groce to make sure that concern becomes moot.
During his first two seasons in Champaign, the Illini coach has posted a record of just 15-21 (.417) in Big Ten game, which has included losing spells of eight straight games in 2014 and six of seven in 2013.
To his credit, Groce has earned a reputation for having his teams peak late – both at Illinois and Ohio, where his Bobcats went just 34-30 in the MAC but won three NCAA Tournament games in four seasons. However, it’s high time for the Illini coach has to quash his accompanying rep for having his teams start out so slowly.
Groce’s record in the month of January at Illinois is an ugly 3-12, and if the Illini hope to make the Big Dance come March, they can’t afford to again have a similar start. A December win against struggling Michigan would certainly help their cause.
Through the end of Bruce Weber’s Illinois era into the beginning of Groce’s, Illini fans have become all too accustomed to hearing their once dominant program annually associated with “NCAA bubble” conversations.
Unfortunately, following a 10-3 nonconference slate that proved to be something of a letdown with only one marquee win, against Baylor, the Illinois looks poised to be part of the bubble discussion again.
But what do the Illini have to do in the Big Ten to avoid it? A 9-9 or 10-8 conference record would leave the Illini at either 19-12 or 20-11 heading into the Big Ten Tournament. With the league seemingly down across the board, save for No. 4 Wisconsin, I don’t see either record automatically punching Illinois’ ticket without a conference tournament run.
To safely be among the NCAA Tournament field, Illinois likely will need an 11-7 Big Ten mark. I think it can be done, but Illinois likely needs to go at least 3-2 in its first five games, four of which come on the road.
Again, winning today at Michigan would be a huge boost.
In the Big Ten, Rayvonte Rice can’t do it all by himself.
The Illini tried that route last season, and despite Rice’s best efforts, the team ended up in the NIT.
This year was supposed to be different, in large part because seasoned guards – and supposed sharpshooters – Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby were expected to take some of the pressure off Rice on the perimeter.
But so far, the two transfers haven’t produced as hoped.
Through 13 games, Starks (7.7 points per game) is shooting just 31 percent from three-point range and 36.3 percent overall, while Cosby (8.2 points) is hitting at only a 32.8 percent clip on threes and 30.8 percent from the field. For his part, Rice has been scorching the nets at a 47.1 percent rate from beyond the arc and 51.4 percent overall en route to averaging 17.7 points per game.
On Saturday in Illinois’ final nonconference tuneup against Kennesaw State, Cosby (5-of-10 field goals, 13 points) hit double figures for the first time in eight games. As a veteran of the major-conference wars at Seton Hall, he’s going to have to keep that up while Starks (formerly of Oregon State) is going to have to pick it up.
Otherwise, come tournament time, the Illini may again be left holding the bag.