After a narrow loss at Wisconsin on Tuesday, the Michigan men’s basketball team will come home to Ann Arbor to face Illinois once again Saturday.

The last time the two teams faced off was back on Jan. 11, when the Wolverines fell to the Fighting Illini, 85-69, in Champaign. Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. was called for a technical foul in the first half, which changed the course of the game, as Illinois went on a 17-2 run to end the stanza and never looked back.

After the game, Fighting Illini forward Maverick Morgan called Michigan a “white-collar” team, which didn’t sit well with the Wolverines, so there will be no shortage of motivation for the home team.

The Daily sat down with Illinois coach John Groce at Big Ten Media Day in October to talk about dealing with injuries, the growth of his team and the next steps the Fighting Illini need to take to be a Big Ten contender.

The Michigan Daily: Last season, you had a couple “almost” wins when you almost beat Maryland and you almost beat Penn State. In your mind, what does your team need to do to get over that hump?

John Groce: We need to get healthy, and we have. I’m glad it happened now, but it wasn’t fun going through it (last season). But if you took any team (in the Big Ten) and took away their starting ‘1’, ‘4’ and ‘5’ and play the Big Ten schedule, that’s a lot. Everybody has an injury. Michigan’s had their fare share of injuries too, and it certainly hampers growth and development, and they’ve done a great job of thrusting through that. I thought our guys had that same mindset last year.

TMD: You mentioned that you’re glad it happened today. Why is that?

JG: I thought we played well in the Big Ten Tournament, and it showed their character that they did want to keep playing. I loved how well we played overall, and I thought that was great heading into this year. Some guys got experience when they might not have otherwise. So now it’s become a blessing (to) have all those guys that are experienced and seasoned. It bodes well for us.

TMD: Now that you’re healthy, what’s the next step your team needs to take?

JG: The next thing for us is to get back to defending the way we did the first three years (of my tenure). Of course, a lot of things like injuries are tied to that last year, but our defense was not good enough. It was poor, and it has to be a lot better.

TMD: What do you think about the defense is lacking? Is it the general hustle of the team or may (it be) tied to X’s and O’s?

JG: I think it’s strength, and we’re a lot stronger this season. I think it’s experience. I think it’s health, execution of the little things and valuing the little things. It’s a lot of different things and we’re at a different place in those areas than we were a year ago with everything we’ve been through.

TMD: When you talk about the “little things”, do you mean your team lacked grit? What do you mean by that?

JG: We weren’t tough for me overall. We played a lot of young guys. They got knocked around a lot and were baptized by fire. Now the first three years (of my tenure), we were tough dudes. But we’ve got to get back to that toughness and that grittiness, and it’s exemplified certainly on the defensive end and on the backboard. 

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