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How Will Illinois Perform In New York City?

Can the Illini play the role of spoiler this week?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Fighting Illini enter the Big Ten Tournament 2-2 over their last four games. Brad Underwood’s squad is healthier and generally more competitive than a stretch of games from January to February in which they lost 10 of 12.

Throughout Big Ten play, Illinois was regarded as a team that played aggressive man-to-man defense, could score, and wouldn’t make any easy the opposition. The wins weren’t there, but Illinois played teams tough and made it difficult.

Can Illinois translate some of this play into some wins in the Big Ten Tournament? Let’s take a look at what could happen.

-Opening Round

Here is the bracket for the Big Ten Tournament.

The Illini are the No. 13 seed and will tip off against No. 12 seed Iowa in the tournament’s opening game. Both teams finished the season at 4-14 in conference play, and Illinois was slightly better with a 14-17 overall record.

If both teams come out firing, you can expect some offensive fireworks in this matchup. Their only meeting this season was a 104-97 overtime victory for Iowa in Champaign. The Illini led that game by 20 at one point, only to see it quickly disappear in the second half. Despite some late heroics from Trent Frazier, the Illini fell in the extra session.

For Illinois to win in their opening round, they will need to improve their rebounding numbers against the Hawkeyes. Iowa outrebounded Illinois 45-26 in the first meeting, with 17 of those 45 coming on the offensive end. Leron Black and Michael Finke are both healthy and looking better, but they will need to corral an Iowa team that ranks in the top five in rebounding in the Big Ten.

Outside of these factors, Illinois will need to defend the three-point line against Iowa’s talented shooters. Iowa ranks in the top five in three-point field goal percentage (37.3 percent) in the Big Ten this season and can throw out lineups in which there are four shooters on the floor together. Illinois did a nice job in the first meeting, holding Iowa to 7-24 from three, but Illinois has given up 40 percent three-point shooting in 4 of their last 5 games. With Illinois’s own three-point shooting troubles (33 percent as a team), the Illini will not be able to match an Iowa three-point shooting barrage.

Still, this is a very winnable game for Illinois to kick things off. Expect this team to be hungry to get some revenge for one of the more painful losses this season.

-If They Advance

Should the Illini advance past Iowa, Michigan will await on Thursday. The defending Big Ten Tournament champions are following a similar script from last season, and are playing some of their best basketball right now. Michigan destroyed Maryland on the road Saturday and has won their last five games.

The Wolverines enter the Big Ten Tournament at 24-7 overall and 13-5 in the conference. They are the tournament’s No. 5 seed, and a deep run in this tournament can move them up the NCAA Tournament seed line. According to BracketMatrix, Michigan is currently the highest rated 6th seed.

Michigan and Illinois played once this season with the Wolverines coming out on top 79-69 in Ann Arbor. The Illini actually led most of the first half, but could not sustain it for the second half. Mo Wagner scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, and after 12 first-half turnovers, Michigan only coughed up the ball three times in the second half.

With the way Michigan has been playing it would take a tall order to defeat the Wolverines. But if Illinois is able to pull off the improbable upset, a battle with Nebraska would await on Friday. Illinois actually beat Nebraska last week 72-66, crippling Nebraska’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

Should the miracle run continue to the weekend, Illinois would play Michigan State and then possibly Ohio State or Purdue. These scenarios are highly unlikely.


It has been a difficult season for Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini. His team has shown flashes of solid, competitive play, but just don’t have the horses yet to compete for 40 minutes.

The opportunity is there against Iowa for a little payback, and it is always a positive to get young players tournament experience, but expect a close game against Iowa and then, if they advance, the Illini bowing out against Michigan on Thursday.