BY JIM COTTER email@example.com
---- — CHAMPAIGN— It doesn’t take much to see that Michigan is the class of the Big Ten Conference this season.
The No. 12 ranked Wolverines shot a blistering 57 percent from the field, including 16-for-23 from 3-point range, en route to a convincing 84-53 victory over Illinois on Senior Night Tuesday evening at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
The win by the Wolverines clinches the conference championship outright for them, and thus, the top seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament next week at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Illinois, who never led in the game, kept the contest close for a good portion of the first half, but a 10-0 run by the Wolverines put the game out of reach and they cruised to a 52-30 halftime advantage. The margin of defeat was the largest in the history of the State Farm Center.
Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines’ sophomore guard, led the way for Michigan with a game-high 24 points, including 7-of-9 from beyond the arc. Caris LeVert added 15 points, while Glenn Robinson III chipped in 13 for Michigan, who improves to 22-7 overall and moves to 14-3 in the Big Ten with the victory.
“It was kind of contagious, and once one shot started to fall, they all pretty much fell into place,” Stauskas said. “This is our championship, and we wanted to win it outright”.
Michigan coach John Beilein had nothing but praise for his players after the game.
“It was a blessing to coach these players, and as far as the shooting tonight goes, I haven’t even seen that display in practice,” Beilein said.
Illinois honored its two seniors, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, before the game. Bertrand, who is a fifth-year senior, began his senior season in the starting lineup, but has been coming off the bench the past few weeks.
Ekey, who was a fifth-year transfer from Illinois State, made the most of his one year with the Illini, also beginning the year as a starter, but also coming off the bench in recent weeks.
The Fighting Illini saw their brief three game winning streak come to an end, and with it, the talk of making a late run towards an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament might be quieted as well.
“Our goal every year is to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but sometimes, those things have to take care of themselves,” Illinois head coach John Groce said.
Illinois falls to 17-13 overall and drops to 6-11 in the Big Ten standings with the loss. The Illini were led in scoring by Rayvonte Rice with 16 points. Freshman Kendrick Nunn continued his outstanding play by scoring 14 points, including 6-for-10 from the field.
“Obviously the key to the game was the three-point shooting, where they outscored us by a 48-6 margin, and that is tough to overcome,” Groce said.
Illinois is a little wounded right now, with Bertrand suffering a knee injury in the game, while freshman Jaylon Tate did not play in the game after tweaking an ankle in practice earlier in the week.
“We need to come in with the right mindset after having a day off, since we have played three games in seven days,” Groce added.
The lopsided loss to the Wolverines also snapped a string of four games where they had held their opponents to under 50 points. Michigan had eclipsed that mark by halftime, primarily due to their unconscious shooting from the field.
“Lately we have been playing great defense, but tonight they knocked down pretty much every shot that they took,” Rice said.
Illinois shot 38 percent from the field for the game, and lost the rebounding battle as well by a 33-23 margin.
The Fighting Illini will wrap up the regular season on Saturday evening against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes defeated the Illini in their first meeting of the season last month in Champaign 81-74, and will play at Michigan State Thursday before their matchup with Illinois. Iowa, who is ranked No. 24 in the nation, currently has a 20-9 overall record and tied for fourth place in the conference with a 9-7 record.
Game time on Saturday evening is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on the Big Ten Network. The game can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1, as well as statewide on the Fighting Illini Sports Network.
Jim Cotter is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News, and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org