Against all odds, the Illinois Fighting Illini (17-12, 7-9) are right back in the postseason conversation. John Groce’s squad was riding high after knocking off Iowa and Northwestern, and that hot streak continued on Sunday night with a big 73-57 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-16, 6-9). Malcolm Hill led the way with 19 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists on 6-11 shooting from the field.
Doing well against Nebraska isn’t exactly the greatest barometer of success, but this had to have been one of Illinois’ most complete efforts of the season. The defense in particular was absolutely stifling as it held the Cornhuskers to a conference-low 57 points. The Fighting Illini took advantage of their frequent stops, too, by netting 13 three-pointers on 48.1% shooting from the field.
Maverick Morgan was a force to be reckoned with in the post, and his mid-range game overwhelmed freshman Jorday Tshimanga the entire game. The senior ended the contest with 12 points on an efficient 6-9 shooting effort.
Te’Jon Lucas won the point guard battle against Chicago native Glynn Watson; he had 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists while playing fantastic on-ball defense.
1. Illinois is back on the NCAA Tournament bubble
Yes, the college basketball landscape is that bad right now. I’m personally still skeptical as hell about Illinois’ chances for Selection Sunday, but national bracketologists are insisting that the Fighting Illini are still alive. Here’s a recent excerpt from Yahoo’s Brad Evans:
Encased in ice and abandoned somewhere in Siberia only weeks ago, Illinois has not only thawed, it’s in serious contention for an at-large berth. How? Downward spirals experienced by Kansas St. and TCU combined with a rising profile have the Illini knocking at the door. Just glance at their resume. They’ve played the 12th-toughest schedule in the country and registered four RPI top-50 wins. Given how wimpish many on the bubble are that’s enough to push Malcolm Hill and Co. over the top. Riding high offensively, especially after canning XX trey bombs at Nebraska, the Big Ten reps may only need three more Ws – a tango with Michigan St. Wednesday looms large – to cut rug. Achieve that and John Groce’s head likely avoids the chopping block. Remarkable.
So what must occur in order for this miracle to actually unfold? The easiest route would be to win the last two regular season games — vs. Michigan State, @ Rutgers — before before turning attention to the Big Ten Tournament, where one to two additional wins could propel Illinois into First Four consideration.
2. Illinois is back in the NCAA Tournament picture
Thought this was worth mentioning again. None of this makes any sense.
3. Senior Night is on Wednesday
Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Tracy Abrams, and Mike Thorne Jr. will play their last game at the State Farm Center on Wednesday night. Their opponent? Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, who happen to be coming off a nice upset victory of their own over No. 16 Wisconsin.
Speaking of Malcolm Hill! The star guard netted his 1,736th point against Nebraska, moving him into fifth place on the all-time program scoring list. Hill needs just 12 more points to equal Brian Cook (1,748 points), and Dee Brown (1,812 points) remains on the cusp of striking distance.