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Illinois came back to beat Michigan in overtime in February. (AP/Rick Danzl)

Big Ten tourney: Heat’s on Illinois to come up big

SHARE Big Ten tourney: Heat’s on Illinois to come up big
SHARE Big Ten tourney: Heat’s on Illinois to come up big

In a perfect world, John Groce would be able to insulate his players from the external debate over Illinois’ season résumé and the pressure on the team to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

If they had no reason to know any better, perhaps the Illini would consider their 19 victories and their 9-9 Big Ten record and figure, sure, they’ve already got a great shot at a bid.

“We don’t talk about it, but the guys are aware of it,” Groce said of Illinois’ need to do some damage in the Big Ten tournament in order to get where they’re trying to go. “They know whenever you go into a conference tournament setting, somebody on Sunday is getting an automatic berth. We’re all playing for a championship.”

But only one of the league’s 14 teams can make that happen, and — for a lot of reasons — it doesn’t figure to be the No. 8-seeded Illini. Offensively, they’re inconsistent at best and often a mess. Some of the team’s younger players — Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate — appear at times to have run into a late-season wall. Transfer guard Ahmad Starks, the leading three-point shooter in Oregon State history, just hasn’t quite clicked.

We could list a bunch more reasons, but there may not be a need to look further than this one: The Illini are one step — a Thursday-morning tip against old friend Michigan — from having to take on No. 1 seed Wisconsin in Friday’s quarterfinals.

“It doesn’t matter who we play,” said senior guard Rayvonte Rice. “We’re going to go out and give it our best shot and try to get the win.”

What Rice and his teammates are being told is to play their games one at a time. What Illini fans and many others examining the potential NCAA field are saying is that it could — and probably will — take a victory over the Wolverines and then another one over the Badgers for the tourney talk to get very real.

You can understand why a lot of orange-and-blue-bleeders are feeling less than confident right about now, though there surely will be a sizable, vocal contingent of them Thursday at the United Center.

“We enjoy going up there and playing,” Groce said. “Hopefully, our fans have bought up all our tickets and it’ll be filled with orange and blue.”

Illinois is perilously close to missing out on the Big Dance for the second year in a row, which hasn’t happened at the school in over two decades. Tellingly, this will be the Illini’s fourth consecutive appearance in the Big Ten’s 8-vs.-9 game — a long way from their league tourney titles of 2003 and 2005. Making matters even gnarlier, Groce’s record at Illinois against Michigan is 1-5.

And did we mention the renovations currently being done at the State Farm Center in Champaign? Indeed, this could be the second straight season Illinois must settle for the NIT and play all of its games in that tournament on the road.

Of course, anyone can find positives if he or she wants to. Illinois’ 25 victories in the Big Ten tourney ranks second among all schools. The Illini have made it to six title games and reached the semifinals a league-high 12 times. There were surprising runs to the title game as a No. 11 seed in 1999 and a No. 10 in 2008.

And then there’s this: Illinois is 16-6 in league tourney games in Chicago.No, all hope isn’t lost.

“It’s just survive and advance at this point,” said senior center Nnanna Egwu.

Or lose and, well, you know.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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