CHICAGO – The suitcase was filled to the brim.
Just like the hopes of a center trying to make his last collegiate basketball visit to his hometown count.
“We came here and packed for four days,” said Illinois senior center Nnanna Egwu-a graduate of Chicago’s St. Ignatius High School.
It wasn’t just an optimistic wish for the Illini and their senior leader. It was a necessity for a team getting used to living at the edge of March Madness.
While at a respectable 19 victories on the season John Groce’s team lacked a handful of quality wins-especially on the road-to already warrant one of the 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament. In all likelyhood all of the sets of clothes which they brought to Chicago would have to be used if a spot in the “Big Dance” was to happen.
That would mean the Illini would reach the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament which might have been enough to convince the selection committee to let them in if they failed to win that contest on Sunday.
But after 40 minutes of basketball at the United Center Egwu and his teammates will need to pull out the iron. All of those clothes were folded and creased for no reason.
Michigan tore into a lackluster Illinois team from the start and were only challenged for a few minutes after that. The Wolverines’ 73-55 victory profoundly knocked the Illini out of the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament and into the NIT for the second-straight year.
"For some reason they played more desperate than us and there is no reason for that," said Egwu as he shook his head during interviews outside the Illinois locker room. "We should have been the more desperate team but they came out and they played harder than us and they beat us in every category."
Right from the start, in fact.
Michigan sprinted out to a 14-2 lead on a cold-shooting Illinois team in a game which could be regarded as home contest for the eighth seed that were playing in alumni-heavy Chicago. The Illini felt at home for the next few minutes when they rallied from the deficit to take the lead but their "desperation" was only temporary.
Michigan outscored Illinois 23-4 to end the half and build a 17 point lead and would build the lead to as much as 24 in the second half. Aubery Dawkins (18 points) was one of four Wolverines starters in double digits by the end of a forgettable end to another average Illinois season.
"I thought we had another gear that we never quite reached today for whatever reason," said Groce, whose Illini never got closer than 13 points to Michigan in the second half. "Heart is not enough in this league. You've got to have effort and execution and I don't think either one of them were good enough."
Neither is the season for the Illinois as they miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons. It's been ten years since the Illini reached the championship game in St. Louis and they haven't been close to getting back since, never making it past the round of 32 since that 2005 season.
"I don't like to say we're going to play in the NIT," said guard Malcolm Hill with a sigh. "We'll just have to do our best in that I guess."
Right after they unpack, of course.