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Illini over Michigan? Now that would be an upset

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice goes up for shot second half an NCAA college basketball game against Indianfirst round Big Ten

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice goes up for a shot in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Indianapolis. Illinois won 64-54. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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Updated: April 15, 2014 6:30AM

INDIANAPOLIS — It hangs in the air like a Jumbotron-sized meatball: Does Illinois belong on the same court as Michigan?

We’re going to find out Friday, nine days after the Wolverines blasted the Illini by 31 points in Champaign — icing the Big Ten regular-season title for one team and spoiling Senior Night for the other.

“They embarrassed us,” guard Malcolm Hill said. “Now it’s our chance to beat them when it counts.”

Such a turnaround would rock the Big Ten tournament to its core, but Illinois has been rewriting the script for a while now. The 64-54 victory Thursday over Indiana in the opening game of the tourney raised the Illini’s record to 5-1 in the last six games and 19-13 on the season — a far cry better than where coach John Groce’s team stood after its previous meeting with the Hoosiers.

In the last game of January, the Illini trailed by two points at the half at Indiana, only to be outscored 14-5 in the early minutes after the break. They never recovered and lost their sixth in a row during a nearly devastating eight-game losing streak.

This time around, an hour up the road from Bloomington, the Illini led Indiana by two at the half but got knocked back on their heels as the Hoosiers ripped off a 10-3 spurt out of the locker room. The Illini didn’t cave. A perfectly timed 11-0 run put them back in command.

Junior point guard Tracy Abrams carried the team on his back, scoring a season-high 25 points and adding seven rebounds. A sudden hot streak from a player who often has struggled would be right on time.

Abrams tried to keep his emotions in check after perhaps the finest game of his career.

“I’m a leader; I’m a captain,” he said. “If I were worried about the bad games that I had, what example is that to the younger guys?”

Indiana (17-15) can kiss its NCAA tournament chances goodbye. The Illini still have a shot to get there, but it might take two more victories for them to have “even a remote shot,” according to CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm. An NIT bid now seems to be the worst-case scenario.

Of course, three more victories would equal a shocking Big Ten tourney title. But there’s no point in entertaining such a fanciful thought with the enormous task of a rematch with big, bad Michigan staring the Illini in their faces.

Groce used the word “amnesia” with regard to his players. Yes, a rampant case of that in the Illini locker room would be nice right about now.

“That [first] game was a rough one for us,” he said, “and we can play better.”

Illinois moved to 6-2 all-time against Indiana in the Big Ten tourney. A victory Friday would put the Illini in the semifinals for a league-leading 13th time.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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