CHAMPAIGN – First-year Illinois coach John Groce's last meeting with Michigan was last March, when his Ohio Bobcats left the floor with an NCAA Tournament upset that cemented his status as an up-and coming coach and sent the Wolverines home.
On Sunday, after a 74-60 loss that left the Illini with just three wins in their last eight games, all Groce could do was grin a little as he shook Wolverine coach John Beilein's hand and state what's he said has become obvious about his cold-shooting team.
"You've got to throw a couple in," Groce said after his team shot 37.1 percent in spite of what he called solid shot selection. "We're all in here diagnosing this and that, looking at stat sheets."
The Illini (15-6, 2-5 Big Ten) have been doomed mostly by cold shooting over that eight-game slump, stretching back to mid-December and a 12-0 start that's now a distant memory.
For the No. 2 Wolverines (19-1, 6-1), the win means the chance to move up to No. 1 when the AP poll comes out Monday after Duke left the door open with a lopsided loss earlier in the week to Miami. It would be Michigan's first top ranking since the 1992-93 season, but Beilein said that, if it happens, it won't mean much.
"You compete for a Big Ten championship, then you go on you compete for a national championship," he said. "That's the number one you want down the line."
While Michigan is talking Big Ten titles, Illinois is now trying to just fight its way back into the middle of the pack. And the road back isn't easy — Illinois; next four games are at No. 13 Michigan State, at home against Wisconsin and No. 7 Indiana and at No. 12 Minnesota.
"Our guys like challenges," Groce said. "We've got some challenges coming up in our league every night."
The challenge Sunday appeared to get just a little easier when starting forward Jordan Morgan limped off the court with a badly sprained right ankle less than two minutes into the game. But Michigan barely missed him.
"Coach calls him the minister of defense," Trey Burke said, crediting the Mitch McGary, John Horford and Max Bielfeldt, the three big men who picked up the slack.
"I say this every game," Burke added, "but it just starts with defense. I think that started in the first half."
Beilein said he didn't yet know the severity of Morgan's sprained right ankle but said he couldn't have returned to the game even if baldy needed.
Burke scored 19 to lead Michigan. Nick Stauskas scored 14 points and Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 12 each.
Brandon Paul led Illinois with 15 points but had five of the Illini's 15 costly turnovers.
"It's guys trying to make plays," D.J. Richardson, who finished with 12 points and had two turnovers, said about Illinois coughing up the ball. "We can't always hit the home run. We gotta count on other guys to make plays as well. Some plays are kind of forced."
The Illini fought back to within seven points with just over nine minutes to play when a Richardson steal set up Joseph Bertrand for a soft jump shot that floated into the bucket.
The wave of noise that rose from the crowd trying to will the Illini back into the game didn't last long.
First, with 8:40 to play, McGary pulled down the rebound off a miss by Burke and dropped the ball into the bucket.
Then Burke scooped the ball up off a Paul turnover at the other end and, with a dunk, put the Wolverines back up by 11 at 59-48. With 8:21 to play and shooting just 37.1 percent on the night, Illinois couldn't find a way back.
Morgan appeared to roll his right ankle as he came down under the Wolverine basket, but Michigan lost little if anything inside without the 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward.
McGary, Bielfeldt — a redshirt freshman with strong ties to Illinois — and Horford picked up most of Morgan's minutes, and his slack.
McGary, a 6-10, 250-pound forward, hasn't started a game this season but averages 16 minutes a night anyway. Bielfeldt, though, plays less than six minutes a night, and was all nerves in his first minutes on the court. The 6-7, 245-pound forward badly missed his first free throw, at least a foot right of the basket, and the crowd, well aware that the athletic administration building on the Illinois campus bears his big-donor family's name, let him have it.
So did his teammates, Beilein said.
"It was not a great initial debut with the air ball. That's one of the first things we made fun of," the coach said. "All his teammates were on him in the locker room."
But with another chance at the line minutes later, Bielfeldt sank both shots, finishing with four points in six minutes.
Horford had seven points and five boards in 17 minutes while McGary had six points and eight rebounds.
"It gave three guys the opportunity to play that (don't) get as much as they like, Beilein said of Morgan's injury. "I'm really impressed with the big guys and how they stepped up there."
Illinois' big-man combination of Nanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey wasn't much of a match for them. The Wolverines scored 42 points in the paint.
Groce said his big men weren't bad, just not as good they'd like to be, especially McLaurin, the 6-8 grad-student transfer he called his team's defensive Kevin Garnett
"I really have a high regard for Sam's intelligence and ability to execute our defense, and I think we'll look at the film and he wasn't on his Ps and Qs like normal," Groce said.
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