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Illini playing their best at tournament time

Illinois coach John Groce celebrates points made by Rayvonte Rice foreground left as teammates Maverick Morgan (22) AustColbert (31) watch

Illinois coach John Groce celebrates points made by Rayvonte Rice, foreground left, as teammates Maverick Morgan (22) and Austin Colbert (31) watch from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 60-49. (AP Photo/Heather Coit)

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Thursday-Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Thursday’s first round

• No. 8 Indiana vs. No. 9 Illinois,
11 a.m., BTN

• No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Purdue, 1:25 p.m.*, BTN

• No. 7 Minnesota vs. No. 10 Penn State, 5:30 p.m., ESPN2

• No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Northwestern, 7:55 p.m.*, ESPN2

Friday’s quarterfinals

• No. 1 Michigan vs. Illinois/Indiana, 11 a.m., ESPN/ESPN2

• No. 4 Nebraska vs. Ohio State/Purdue, 1:25 p.m.*, ESPN/ESPN2

• No. 2 Wisconsin vs. Minnesota/Penn State, 5:30 p.m., BTN

• No. 3 Michigan State vs. Iowa/Northwestern, 7:55 p.m.*, BTN

Saturday’s semifinals

• 12:40 p.m., 3:05 p.m.*, Ch. 2

Sunday’s championship

• 2:30 p.m., Ch. 2

* approximate


Steve Greenberg

First-round winners: Illinois,
Ohio State, Minnesota, Iowa

Second round: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State

Semis: Ohio State, Michigan State

Champion: Michigan State

Seth Gruen

First round: Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, Iowa

Second round: Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State

Semis: Nebraska, Michigan State

Champion: Michigan State

Updated: March 12, 2014 11:38PM

Just imagine it: Illinois, a team so shaky it lost eight games in a row earlier this season, arrives in Indiana­polis for the Big Ten tournament as a different animal. Indiana goes down hard Thursday, and league regular-season champ Michigan suffers the Illini’s wrath Friday. For a 13-loss squad, the Big Dance becomes a real possibility …

Too Hollywood? Could be, but the Illini are hoping to at least produce an Indy movie worth watching.

“I do think we’re playing the best that we’ve played all year,” coach John Groce said.

There’s no question about it. The Illini have won four of their last five games and are 5-3 since the painful, frustrating losing streak that threatened to define their season. Who would’ve guessed this team would be capable of beating Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa — all likely NCAA tournament teams — in its last three road games?

And so it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all to think No. 9 seed Illinois (18-13) might knock off
No. 8 seed Indiana (17-14), a slight favorite according to the oddsmakers, in the first round at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Given Michigan’s 31-point victory in Champaign earlier this month, the second round could be a lot trickier.

But only Ohio State has won more Big Ten tournament games than Illinois, whose record in the event is a terrific 24-14. If that first number gets to 26 or 27 in Indy, there will be rampant NCAA tournament bubble talk surrounding Groce and his players.

“To have the opportunity to be playing for something, with the way they’ve handled themselves, the way they’re playing lately, it says a lot about who they are,” Groce said.

Athletic director Mike Thomas said Wednesday that he doesn’t believe Illinois will be assured of a spot in the NCAA tournament unless it wins the Big Ten tournament. Thomas said the Illini aren’t a lock for the NIT, either.

“But I think we’ve certainly improved our situation,” he said. “I think John has a history of his teams playing better at the end of the year, which is what you want to see happen.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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