Play Time Is Over

USA TODAY Sports

The Illini may be 12-0 to start the year, but the real season begins on Saturday in St. Louis.

In college football it's called September. That's the time of the season when BCS programs usually feast on FCS schools and schools from smaller conferences in an effort to fatten up on wins before the hard part of the schedule comes with conference play. Life isn't much different in college basketball.

While there are plenty of marquee matchups early in the basketball season, the overwhelming majority of games are more like Illinois versus St. Francis than they are Illinois versus Gonzaga. For the Illini, it's been a good strategy to start the year.

We came into this season just hoping to compete as the transition from Bruce Weber to John Groce took place. Instead the Illini fattened up on some cupcakes and appetizers to start out 12-0 and and find themselves ranked tenth in both polls. A dream start, for sure, but reality is about to set in.

This team is not going undefeated, and while there have been impressive wins, there have been more unimpressive wins lately. And now the main course is making its way to the table.

It will start Saturday in St. Louis against Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game. While it's one of my favorite games of the year, it'll also be another indication of just how good this Illinois team really is. Yes, we beat Gonzaga on the road, but it took a Herculean effort from Brandon Paul to do so.

BP3 can't do that every time we need him to.

We haven't beaten Missouri since 2008 and this year's Mizzou team is two spots behind us in the polls. This is because we beat Norfolk State.

After the Mizzou game the Illini get Auburn at the United Center. Now, Auburn is not a good team. It lost to DePaul for goodness sake. So that's a game we should win, but as we know, games we should win tend to be closer than ones we shouldn't.

After that 2013 will come and with it will come Big Ten play.

I don't know if you've noticed, but the Big Ten is pretty good at this basketball thing. There are currently six Big Ten teams ranked in the top 20 of both polls. And we're going to have to play every single one of them. This will be when we find out just how good this Illinois basketball team is, and while I don't think we're a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, I don't think we're a top ten team either.

So losses are coming, and probably quite a few of them. But that just shows how important this 12-0 start and that win over Gonzaga -- and a possible win over Mizzou -- were for this team as far as its tournament resume. Even if the Illini only split the Missouri and Auburn games and then split their Big Ten games that means they'll finish the season 22-10.

Considering how highly ranked we are now, you have to think that finishing the year 22-10 would be more than enough to get us into the tournament. And that's what this season is still about.

This first six weeks of the season have been a blast and quite the unexpected surprise, but the fun and games are over. Reality is coming, and with it our expectations need to change.

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