Updated: March 4, 2014 9:52PM
CHAMPAIGN — John Groce stood at the scorer’s table prior to the start of the second half, chuckled at the Illinois radio team of Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester, and addressed the elephant in the arena.
“I’ve never seen anyone shoot like that,” Groce said, “and I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
He was referring to a display of marksmanship by 12th-ranked Michigan that was the perfect way to lock down the program’s first outright Big Ten championship since 1986.
That’s right, not even the Fab Five teams of the early 1990s got that done.
The Wolverines (22-7; 14-3 in Big Ten play) shot an eye-popping 67.9 percent from the field in racing to a 52-30 halftime lead. From beyond the arc, they were even better: 11 of 14, or 78.6 percent. By the end of their 84-53 victory, they’d splashed in 16 three-pointers, tying the State Farm Center record for an Illini opponent.
“I haven’t seen that in practice, even,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
But Beilein was being modest. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage — that’s one heck of a trifecta. This was them doing their thing in exquisite fashion.
And it was Illinois (17-13, 6-11 Big Ten) doing its thing — missing an array of makeable shots while being dramatically outperformed offensively. One team’s 23 three-point attempts produced 48 points. The other’s 18 long balls hoisted produced six points.
We’ll let you figure out which team was which.
The Illini shot the ball much better during the three-game winning streak that preceded Tuesday’s outing, but there’s no pretending Groce’s team has any way to win other than with crazy-good defense.
The defense was good — crazy good — in victories over Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan State, and in a loss to Ohio State before those games. Four consecutive opponents failed to score 50 points on the Illini. Which makes the fact Michigan topped that in the first half all the more impressive, does it not?
“We played our game today. We just focused on playing Michigan basketball,” said Nik Stauskas, who drained a career-high seven three-pointers, led all scorers with 24 points and may have put the clamps on conference player of the year honors.
He added, “This is our championship. We wanted to win it outright.”
Meanwhile, the Illini officially are down to their final chance to reach the NCAA tourney: winning the league tourney in Indianapolis. And such a feat is difficult to imagine, especially if it would involve playing Michigan a second time.
The competitor in Groce wouldn’t mind another crack at the Wolverines, though.
“I love challenges. That’s part of our culture. That’s who we are,” he said.
Caris LeVert, who once committed to Ohio when Groce was still coach there, scored 15 points. Ray Rice had 16 points and nine rebounds for Illinois.