If you had asked me in January about Illinois, I’d have said that it was yet another season flushed down the drain in Champaign.
If you had asked me in February, I’d have said that the worm had turned, and that the Brad Underwood era was starting to look bright indeed.
Now here it’s March, and I’m not sure which way I lean.
After a four-game stretch where Illinois looked like they had finally turned a corner, including wins at (a then-impressive) Ohio State and at home against Michigan State, the Illini finished the year losing five of their last six. Same old Illinois, right?
And yet I get the feeling that Illinois fans are bullish on their future for the first time in a long time. Ever since Bruce Weber made the NCAA Title Game in 2005, Illinois’ program has been like an airship with a slow leak. They caught an updraft here and there, but for the most part they’ve been falling lower and lower in the sky.
With Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayi Dosunmu, and Trent Frazier, the Illini might finally have a young core to build around. For the first time in a decade and a half, there might be a net inflow of helium into the Illinois airship. Might be. Losing five out of six is hardly a sign of a righted ship. For Illini fans to feel good about picking their team to finish in the top half of the league next season, they need to make some noise in Chicago.
You couldn’t ask for a better Wednesday game. Illinois vs. Northwestern in Chicago. The two in-state rivals split the season series, each winning on their own homecourt, so this is the grudge match, hopefully to be played in front of a more-than-half-full United Center.
Believe it or not, the advanced stats like Northwestern better than Illinois. As of the time this article was written, the Wildcats are at No. 70 on KenPom, vs. No. 78 for Illinois. Chris Collins’ squad is favored to win the game by one point.
Needless to say, that would be a disaster for Illinois. It’s one thing to regress throughout the season. It’s quite another to lose to a last-place Northwestern team within the borders of the state of Illinois.
The key to the game for Illinois is exactly the same as every single other game they’ve played this season—turnovers. Force a lot of them, get some easy transition baskets, and you have a shot at winning the game. If this becomes a half-court game, the Illini are likely to struggle, particularly since Northwestern has one skill that they are elite at, keeping their opponents from scoring beyond the arc.
If They Advance
Get past Northwestern, and you get Iowa. For the past several weeks, Big Ten fans and commentators have been asking the question, “Is there anybody in this league that you’d actually want to play in Chicago?” To which I provide the answer, “Yes. Iowa.”
Fran is back, sure. That didn’t help the Hawkeyes against Nebraska. Earlier in the season, it looked like Tyler Cook could make a run at First Team All-Big Ten. He had nine against Nebraska and zero against Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes look broken. They don’t defend, and they haven’t won a game that didn’t come down to a last-second shot or overtime since February 1.
If it’s close, the ball will be in Jordan Bohannon’s hands. But I doubt it’s close. My guess is that if Illinois makes it to Thursday, it’s possible that for the first time ever in the BTT an 11 seed could be favored over a 6.
Beyond Iowa lurks Michigan. If Illinois wants to avoid a bad season, they have to make it this far. If they want to end the season feeling good about themselves, they need to win this one, too.
But I don’t think they’ll be able to. Michigan is the polar opposite of Iowa, so they will be difficult to prepare for. And they’ll have fresh legs, whereas the Illini—a team that likes to play fast and doesn’t have a particularly deep bench—will be playing its third game in three days. This one smells like a 20-point blowout, except for one thing: the crowd.
If Illinois makes it through Wednesday and Thursday to Friday, their fans are going to pack the United Center. We saw it last year with Rutgers in NYC, and we’ll see it with Illinois in Chicago. Half the United Center will be orange. Words like “destiny” and “momentum” will be whispered among fans as they wait in line for $11 beer. And if Illinois gets on a run...
But they won’t. Michigan plays stifling defense, and they don’t turn the ball over. Rutgers’ run last year ended on Friday night, and Illinois’ will, too. Assuming they get that far.
So what would a run to Friday night mean for the future of the Illinois program? Beating Northwestern and Iowa isn’t particularly impressive. But with that young core, dynamic style of play, and flashes of occasional brilliance, you wouldn’t be totally nuts to expect good things from Brad Underwood’s program in 2020. On the other hand, you could make an equally compelling case that the Illini will continue to be a Wednesday night program. A run to Friday, and it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Lose before that, and Illinois is still a deflating airship.
Beat Michigan, and you’ll have this league’s attention.