No team is playing better than the Illinois Fighting Illini right now. While the season got off to a rocky start, Illinois has certainly figured things out since then. In fact, Illinois is currently on an incredible run, having won 11 of its last 12 games. As a result, the team now enters this week’s Big Ten Tournament hoping to clinch a one seed in the NCAA Tournament and prove it’s the best team in the league.
So, can Illinois get the job done? Let’s take a look.
As the two seed, Illinois gets a double-bye and will be off until Friday. The team will then face Rutgers, who’s coming off a win over Indiana on Thursday night. Illinois also shares a side of the bracket with Iowa and Wisconsin, who are rated among KenPom’s top 15 teams.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
While the Scarlet Knights shouldn’t be discounted, the game feels pretty manageable for Illinois. The Illini have a better resume, are ranked nearly 30 spots higher on KenPom, have more talent, and are absolutely red hot. And while Rutgers won the only regular season meeting between the two, it’s important to remember that game happened in mid-December, when Illinois was still figuring things out.
Rutgers has also shown some serious flaws in recent weeks. The Scarlet Knights trailed for much of the team’s game on Thursday against an underwhelming Indiana team and are only 4-4 over the team’s last eight games. That doesn’t exactly send off alarm bells of a team that’s about to beat a squad that’s 11-1 over its last 12 games.
From an on-court perspective, the game will be decided down low. Both teams have some of the best big men in the league. Rutgers has Myles Johnson and Illinois has Kofi Cockburn. Whoever wins that battle like comes out on top.
-If They Advance
Should Illinois take care of business on Friday and move past Rutgers, it would then likely face Iowa on Saturday afternoon, assuming the Hawkeyes make it past Penn State or Wisconsin on Friday night. Illinois beat Iowa in the only regular season meeting between the two, but the game was hotly contested and the Hawkeyes have shown improved play down the stretch, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
As most Big Ten fans know by now, Iowa plays through star big man Luka Garza. He’s arguably the best player in the country and put up 21 points and 16 rebounds in Iowa’s most recent outing against Wisconsin on Sunday. Obviously, those aren’t numbers likely to excite Illini fans heading into a potential matchup. And Garza isn’t even the team’s only weapon. The backcourt and wing groups are arguably even deeper than the frontcourt.
With all that said, Iowa also isn’t some unbeatable opponent. The Hawkeyes may be a top five team, but they still have seven losses on their resume, including two losses to Indiana and a loss to Minnesota. The game would be considered a coin flip at tip and Illinois has more than enough to get past the Hawkeyes.
If Illinois won on Saturday, it would then likely get Michigan, Purdue, or Ohio State for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. Illinois went 3-1 against those teams during the regular season, so fans would likely be pretty confident. Michigan projects as the most difficult on paper, but Illinois also just blew out the Wolverines, so that doesn’t look imposing either. Regardless, Illinois would have to expect a tough game from any of the three.
Illinois enters the Big Ten Tournament playing as well (or better) than anybody in the country. Outside of a bad night in East Lansing in February, Illinois has been virtually perfect since mid-January. That’s an incredible accomplishment in a league as deep and as talented as the Big Ten.
All that success has (rightfully) led to heightened expectations this week. Whether the team can live up to them remains to be seen, but it sure seems possible. Most of it will depend on if Illinois brings the same energy it’s had in recent weeks. If so, get ready for some hardware.