Illinois in good NCAA shape after routing Michigan
CHAMPAIGN – The last time Lon Kruger checked the guest list for next week's NCAA tournament, he saw Minnesota, he saw UCLA, he saw two teams from Charleston, S.C., he saw Princeton, he saw Murray State and he saw Tennessee-Chattanooga.
But no Illinois.
"There's a lot of Big Ten teams in position to earn a bid, and we'll still think of ourselves exactly that way – in position to earn a bid," the Illinois basketball coach said Sunday with a straight face.
Uh-huh, and Kansas and Kentucky are in position to make it, too.
"Oh, Illinois is in the tournament," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said. "Illinois is in the tournament and deserves to be there."
Seven days before Terry Holland and the rest of the nine-man NCAA selection committee announces the lucky field of 64, the 21st-ranked and movin'-on-up Illini padded their postseason resume, socking No. 24 Michigan 70-51 before 16,450 fans and two birds at the Assembly Hall on Sunday.
"We're not allowed to talk about the NCAA," Illinois senior Chris Gandy said.
So allow us:
– The victory was the Illini's fifth in seven tries over a ranked team, sure to help their RPI total.
Earlier, Illinois took out Minnesota (then No. 7), UCLA (No. 24), Indiana (No. 17) and Iowa (No. 25).
"It seems like we always get up for the big games, against the tough competition," Illinois junior Matt Heldman said. "We have a lot of quality wins."
– The Illini reached 20 wins for the first time since 1991.
For Kruger, the milestone's old hat, the first-year UI coach previously hitting 20 at Kansas State (twice), Florida and Pan American.
For the program, it's No. 17.
"I've been looking forward to a 20-win season since I got here," said Illinois senior Kiwane Garris, who made it happen, scoring a game-high 29 points and handing out a game-high five assists. "Hopefully, we can make it 22 this week."
– The Illini are 10-6 in the Big Ten.
That leaves them one-half game behind Purdue, with remaining games against 10-15, 5-11 Ohio State (Wednesday, home) and 16-11, 11-6 Purdue (Saturday, away).
Minnesota last year became the first Big Ten team to win 10 conference games, and not make the tournament. The Gophers, who didn't have the 20 wins or the quality ones that Illinois does, were sent to the National Invitation Tournament, where slumping Michigan, 17-11, 7-9, may be headed.
At least that's what much of the Assembly Hall crowd thought Sunday, chanting "NIT, NIT, NIT" when Illinois' second win in 12 tries against the Wolverines was in the bank.
"I started to laugh," Illinois junior Bryant Notree said. "But then I thought, 'No, that's not funny because we were in the NIT last year.' "
Just some of the facts and figures that the selection committee will peruse over the weekend in Kansas City.
"I think you can make a pretty good case for us getting in, but that's not something we're going to worry about," Kruger said.
Kruger hasn't had much to worry about in weeks, the Illini last losing on Feb. 12, at Wisconsin. That was five games ago (the length of Michigan's losing streak).
"They were playing at home, they were playing for their 20th win, there were a lot of things they were shooting for," Wolverines guard Travis Conlan said.
And all the Wolverines had at stake was an NCAA berth.
"What might have to happen is for this to be a rallying cry for this group next year," Fisher said. "Say, look what happened and why did it happen and what are you going to do to make sure it doesn't happen the next time?"
What happened Sunday was beyond belief. The bigger Wolverines scored 13 of the first 17 points of the second half to take a 42-29 lead with 14:16 to go.
Around that time, Heldman looked at Garris, and had a feeling the pounding wouldn't last much longer.
"You could see it in Kiwane's eyes," said Heldman, who finished in double figures for the first time in seven games (12). "He was ready to take over."
Heldman scored the next five points, all on free throws. Then, after Robert Traylor was whistled for a technical foul, Garris added four more.
By the time the run of the season was over, Illinois was up a safe 61-47, having scored 32 points to Michigan's five. Garris had 12 of them.
"You cannot get outscored (32-5) if you are who you think you are," Fisher said.