For an hour or two after the UIC game, I strutted happily. Illinois avoided the big loss. And it kind of felt like a big win, which of course, it wasn't. It was only the recurring nuisance UIC and a game no one will remember by Tuesday.
From here on out, the nuisances--besides Northwestern--are behind the Illini because it's the Big Ten and the best basketball conference in the land. Two main questions face Illinois.
Where do they fit in the conference?
The Big Ten is down from last year, which says everything about last year's conference and little about this year's. Last season boasted the nation's most often No. 1 ranked team in Indiana, the national runner-up in Michigan, a damn good Michigan St. team, a damn good Wisconsin team, an upstart Iowa, a talented Minnesota, and the ever-annoyingly-good Ohio St. Buckeyes. Throw into that mix Illinois and our bag of tricks. It was the best basketball conference I've ever watched.
So, relative to last year, there may be a drop-off. But relative to the rest of this year's landscape, the Big Ten stands as proud as ever. Michigan St., Iowa and, perhaps, Ohio St. have improved, while Wisconsin is a whole different breed of animal. And where Illinois fits into the conference power rankings is hard to say. The best non-answer is this: the Fighting Illini could realistically still be undefeated, despite a schedule that brought two ranked teams. There hasn't been a single game yet that the Illini should have lost.
This leads into the second question, the answer of which should foretell plenty about the remainder of the schedule.
Are the Illini better than last season?
Yes. I believe they are. Tracy Abrams is far improved from last season, as are fellow returnees Joe Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu. Those three are vital, and still only compliments to Rayvonte Rice, who deserves 5,000 raving words and 50,000 Orange Krush kisses.
The five month season has checkpoint games scattered throughout it--games that play out a little bit differently and tell a little bit more about the team. The Mizzou win was Illinois' first checkpoint. Tuesday's matchup with Indiana is the second. So any questions surrounding our defense, our offense, our guard play, our freshman, our Tracy Abrams and our Rayvonte Rice should be answered in some degree against the Hoosiers.
Happy New Years Eve Eve. Beat Indiana.