Illinois head coach John Groce had Michigan's number in the NCAA Tournament last spring, guiding Ohio University to a huge upset over the Wolverines. U-M has been putting up numbers against Groce ever since.
The first-year boss at Illinois didn't blink when addressing the media after Michigan's 71-58 win at Crisler Center on Sunday. U-M bounced back from an eight-point first-half deficit and a three-point Illini halftime advantage, and won going away, securing a regular-season sweep in the series.
Groce insisted the "why" was obvious.
"I'm going to keep this really simple for you," Groce said. "They were smarter and tougher than us in the second half, and that was the difference in the game.
"Obviously, when you play a team as good as Michigan, in this building, with what they've done at home over the last two years
I thought they were really on point. They did a great job.
"We had some errors I thought we had not had during this stretch where we had played well -- some scouting errors, rotational errors, mistakes. They're already really, really good, and that adds to them being better than they already are."
Groce's crew grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the first half, zero after intermission. He sounded steamed about that, along with similar hustle/toughness categories.
"We weren't very tough," he said. "They beat us to loose balls, I thought they screened better. I thought they were tougher than we were in the second half. They had more of a physical disposition than we had in the second half and in this league, that's a recipe for bad stuff. Not good."
Michigan knows that all too well, and has to come away pleased about a game in which it is conceded as the tougher team. Groce had plenty of beefs about the Illinois' effort, but certainly recognized what his team was up against.
"I do NOT want to take anything away from Michigan," he said. "They were terrific. Burke had 26 [points] and eight [assists]. He was great off ball screens, great off handoffs, he made every right play - eight assists, one turn. [Caris] LeVert gave them huge minutes.
"They were really physical and really smart, and played like the good basketball team they are in the second half."
Groce felt his crew "botched" some things defensively in a second half featuring 51-percent shooting by the Wolverines.
"When you do that, they're really good," he said. "They're really well coached, they've got great spacing, they put you in decision-making mode constantly with what they run. They've got good personnel, and they take advantage of it."
Last spring is disappearing in the rearview mirror, and Groce thought long when asked about the difference between the Wolverines then and now.
Both Michigan crews presented a challenge, he offered.
"I thought they were really good last year," he said. "I thought they were terrific. I think they're good now - maybe a little bit deeper. Obviously, [Max] Bielfeldt didn't play today, but trying to make lemonade out of lemons, the fact that [Jordan] Morgan was out probably allowed [Mitch] McGary's development to accelerate.
"Jon Horford has been able to come back from what he went through. He's playing pretty well, and now Morgan comes back, so you have even more depth on the front line. I think they're a really good team."
Groce admires some of the components as well, pointing out
On LeVert, a one-time Ohio signee for Groce: "I think he's getting better. He stepped right in and did a good job, made a couple of big shots. It looks to me like he's getting better defensively. His body is changing. He's a great kid, great family, wish him nothing but the best."
On Morgan: "He just adds depth to that position. When you're talking about a guy who has finished over 60 percent of his field goal attempts in his career at that position, that's disgustingly good. It's amazing. It tells you he takes good shots and plays his role well.
"Certainly, if you ask Coach, he'd say he'd rather have him than not have him. He certainly impacts, for sure. And he's an older front-line guy, being a redshirt junior. Experience is such a great teacher."
On Burke: "He's a terrific player. I've said all week
I was in that [Columbus] area. I saw him play a lot when he was in middle school, high school. Sure, he's gotten better, and you can go down the line - his body has changed, ball-handling, passing, shooting.
"But the thing that he's always had is competitive toughness. He's had that from day one. I've always admired that about him. I think he's a tough kid. I watch them on film, and I think they take on his personality. Obviously, he's a big-time player, and today he made big-time plays."
All out it coalesced into a big-time turnaround in a game Michigan desperately needed.
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