INDIANAPOLIS – For a team that started Big Ten play 3-10, Illinois can embrace the calendar page that promises unforeseeable possibilities.
After beating No. 8 seed Indiana 64-54 in the Big Ten tournament Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the ninth-seeded Illini don't want their season to end now that they finally have a reason to enjoy it.
"I'm just proud of our guys for staying the course," coach John Groce said. "Our guys have shown great toughness all year."
The Illini advanced to a quarterfinal Friday against top seed Michigan, which had a first-round bye and beat Illinois by 31 points just three games ago. That loss was a blemish on an otherwise encouraging end to the regular season for the once-struggling Illini, who have won five of their last six both overall and away from the State Farm Center.
Groce joked that his players would be allowed to celebrate the Indiana win during the "45-second bus ride" to the team hotel before turning their attention to the Big Ten regular-season champions.
If the Illini play anything like they did against Michigan in the first meeting, the trip back to Champaign will be somber.
Yet Illinois' turnaround this season, and its ability to weather runs by Indiana on Thursday had Groce calling the team "unflappable."
The term applied aptly to junior point guard Tracy Abrams, who scored a season-high 25 points after struggling for much of the Big Ten season. He hit 8 of 16 shots, grabbed seven rebounds and recorded two assists, two steals and one turnover in 37 minutes.
Illinois' defense held Indiana to 35.3 percent shooting, while Nnanna Egwu blocked five shots. After a lights-out first half in which they made 6 of 10 3-pointers, the Hoosiers missed all 10 of their second-half attempts.
That same defensive intensity will be essential against the Wolverines, who shot 56.9 percent against Illinois in their 84-53 victory March 4. Conference player of the year Nik Stauskas scored 24 points, hitting 7 of 9 3-pointers.
Egwu said win or lose against Michigan, the Illini need to bring their trademark defense.
"All we have to do is maintain the defensive focus we've had the last 2 weeks," said Egwu, who finished with seven rebounds. "We made our identity toward that. We shut down teams. We lock down teams. That's our goal."
The victory against Indiana made Illinois a probable NIT team. Egwu said the team isn't talking about the postseason, but he knows what might lie ahead if the Illini continue to string together surprises.
"It's March," Egwu said.