Shit is about to get real, y'all.
On Tuesday night the Illini beat Dartmouth 72-65 in a game that I didn't watch, but I've been told wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated. Somehow I'm not comforted by that fact. I don't care if Dartmouth started hitting a bunch of three pointers to finish the game and make it look closer, that little barrage at the end should have turned a 25-point loss into a 15-point loss.
But for the most part, this just isn't an Illini team that seems capable of blowing teams out. At least, not the teams they should. Which, honestly, is not to be all that unexpected. Before the season started I stated that my goals for this team would be to see it make a push for the NCAA tournament, but at least end up with an NIT bid.
We're young. Like, incredibly young. I don't need to remind you that the only bodies coming off that bench after the opening tip belong to freshmen. When you're as young as the Illini are, you probably aren't going to blow out anybody unless you play damn near a perfect game, which is what this team did against Auburn.
And that's why we've seen this team struggle at times against what, to be blunt, has been inferior competition. Save for the two games we have left against Northwestern -- of all the seasons to only have one game against Northwestern -- and UIC at the United Center, that's not going to be the case anymore this season.
The training wheels are about to come off starting on Saturday against Oregon. Seven of our next 13 games will be against teams that are currently ranked. Oregon, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin again. Three of those teams are currently ranked in the top five.
Of those seven games against ranked teams, only three will be played on The Farm.
What I'm trying to tell you is that over the next few weeks we are going to learn far more about this team than we've learned in the first month and a half of the season.
Rayvonte Rice has been awesome, as he currently leads the team in scoring at 17.9 points per game, and even if he hasn't been deadly from three, he's been very efficient with a 57.5 eFG%. But the Illini have played the 336th toughest schedule in the country. We don't know how Ray is going to perform on a nightly basis against some of the best teams in the country.
Jon Ekey has been incredibly useful to this roster. He's averaging nine points and six rebounds per game, and he's also hitting over 40% of his threes while taking more than any other player on the roster. Will he be able to maintain his level of play when the level of competition rises?
We're all basically in love with Jaylon Tate. He's been fantastic as a freshman with 36 assists to only nine turnovers. He has shown an understanding of the offense that you generally only see in players that have been in it for a few years. He looks like a kid we're going to be able to count on for years. But will he show the same kind of poise against Big Ten defenses?
Hell, how will any of the freshmen respond to the challenge of the Big Ten? It will be far and away the best competition any of them have ever faced.
Both Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, the two players we came into the season expecting the most from, have seemed to struggle finding their way with this team. Life's a lot different when you're expected to be the leader, and while I can't speak to life on the court, both have had their struggles doing so on it. Egwu still gets himself in foul trouble, and Abrams has really had trouble shooting the ball this season. Are both of them suddenly going to figure it out in Big Ten play?
Now, I know that some of the answers to some of these questions might send shivers down your spine. They should, because what we don't know is scary. However, I'm not trying to scare you. I'm just trying to share the reality of the situation with you.
This Illini team is off to a 9-1 start, and in reality, it should be 10-0. Still, a 9-1 start considering all the flaws this team has shown in the early going isn't exactly a bad thing. It shows that this team knows how to win even when it isn't at its best. But for the next few months this team is going to need to be at its best if it's going to keep winning.
We've reached the deep end of the schedule. It's time to sink or swim.