Last season, the Michigan men’s basketball team faced Illinois three times, with two games needing overtime. The Wolverines came out victorious twice, including once in the Big Ten Tournament, and the matchup may tilt even more in their favor this season.
Though both teams are returning a majority of their players from last season, the biggest difference will be that both senior guard Caris LeVert and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. will be healthy for the Big Ten opener in Champaign on Wednesday. The duo’s appearance will be a considerable change in Michigan’s offense from the last time Illinois last saw the Wolverines, when LeVert and Walton missed their final two games against the Fighting Illini last season due to injury.
LeVert and Walton will have their hands full with guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. LeVert leads the Wolverines (10-3) with 17.3 points and 5.4 boards per game and will be matched up with Hill, who is averaging 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. Nunn has similar statistics to Hill, averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 boards, and the two combine to make up almost 40 percent of Illinois’ (8-5) offense.
The two leading scorers are both from the state of Illinois, which is a point of pride for Illinois coach John Groce.
In October, the Daily sat down with Groce to discuss athletes from Chicago, the pressure to get to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season and the competition in the Big Ten.
The Michigan Daily: Nunn and two other players (guards D.J. Williams and Jaylon Tate) are from the same high school (Simeon) in Chicago. What’s that pipeline been like?
John Groce: It’s been great. I have great respect for the coach at Simeon and I really respect the program there and how they’ve been to able to sustain excellence for a long period of time. You always love to coach kids from winning programs, and I think those three guys exemplify a lot of the habits I want in players both on and off the court. … Being a part of that program, there’s a standard and an expectation, and I like that.
TMD: Why do you think the quality of the athlete that you’re getting from the Chicago area is so high?
JG: Well I think for us, the biggest thing is regardless of where they’re from, is that we’re trying to find Illini guys. I learned that more and more each year I’ve had this job. When you have a city the size of Chicago and the quality of basketball, the quality of coaching, the talent and it’s two and a half hours away, you’re going to recruit that area hard and we’ve done that. And as you’ve mentioned, we have a lot of guys on our roster that are from Chicago and the surrounding area. A lot of those guys take pride for playing at Illinois, for their state school. I know that’s important to Kendrick (Nunn).
TMD: What makes these Simeon kids Illini guys?
JG: I think the biggest thing is that they have a competitive toughness about them. All three of them have a motor, meaning they want to be really, really good. They work, they’re used to working. Winning is important to them. Knowing how to play with and against really good players because of who they played every day in practice because of who they played against. They get that a little bit more than most, and they’re at an advantage because of that.
TMD: Do you ever feel the pressure to get to the NCAA Tournament this year?
JG: No, I think those guys who are playing want it badly, which is a good thing. Our deal this year is that we want to love each other, serve each other, care about holding each other accountable, and then we want to accept each other, understand who we are as players and as people and help each other become the best team — when you fit it all together — that we can be. Obviously, with the lineup and roster changing in practice a little more frequently than what we wanted, is that more challenging? Yeah, but it also opens up opportunities for other guys. … That’s what those guys came to Illinois for.
TMD: You played Michigan three times last season, a couple of those games going to overtime. What are your opinions on Michigan?
JG: Well obviously they’re really talented. I agree with what (Indiana coach) Crean said earlier about our league (being competitive) top to bottom. I don’t know if there’s any better, I don’t know if it’s been better since I’ve been here. During this three to four years, it’s been pretty strong top to bottom. I think Michigan, certainly, is one of those teams. They’re very well coached. They have great talent. Obviously they had some injuries last year as well, they got some of those guys back healthy now and added some other players. They’re going to be a team, like a lot of these teams, that can beat anybody on any given night.
TMD: Spike Albrecht got pretty emotional in one of the overtime games, he kind of threw his hands up and looked like he was crying. What do you think when you see that kind of emotion?
JG: I have great respect for him, not only for his ability and his skill level, but for his competitiveness. I think he’s really tough as an outsider looking in. You’d have to ask coach Beilein, I don’t coach him every day, but as I watch him, I think he’s a very, very tough kid mentally and physically, and I think that’s a great quality to have, especially in our league.