A little over a third of the way through its season, Illinois sits at 4-7, but its next game might tell the story of the rest of the season.
It’s no secret that the Illini played a tough non-conference schedule. Squaring off against Gonzaga — one of the best teams in the country — in the third game of the season is a tough draw for any school. But, that task only becomes harder when your program returns just four scholarship players from the season before. Illinois showed heart, going toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs until the final minute, but a six-point loss at a neutral site to a likely No. 1 seed in the tournament this season is nothing to be ashamed of.
The Illini could only muster one win (Mississippi Valley State) in a seven-game stretch, and all of a sudden, the team was sitting at 2-7. With the exception of Nebraska and Iowa State, Illinois was competitive in all of its losses.
With wins against UNLV and East Tennessee State, the team has finally pieced together its first winning streak of the season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Illinois is winners of the last five Braggin’ Rights matchups and 14 of the last 18. The Illini have dominated the rivalry in recent memory, but I’m not sure any has more storylines than this one.
Former commits Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett have each played key roles for Missouri the last two seasons. Illinois, just a year removed from the Mark Smith era, will be game-planning for its former starter and Mr. Basketball this season. The Edwardsville native transferred to the Tigers last season and was granted immediate eligibility.
But, I want to talk numbers.
According to the Ken Pomeroy rankings, the Illini come in at 97th in adjusted efficiency margin. To compare, Missouri is ranked 86th, and previous Illinois opponents — Gonzaga and Ohio State — sit at 6th and 25th, respectively. After they welcome Florida Atlantic to town later this month, the Illini only play one game against a team lower than 57th in the KenPom rankings the entire rest of the season. Just one! (We’re looking at you, Rutgers.)
If Illinois comes out tomorrow and gives Missouri all it can handle, then there’s a good chance we all might be in for a treat during Big Ten play. Winning the game would be a huge momentum shift for the program and the direction of this season specifically. But, if the Illini lose, well, unfortunately, things could get ugly.
Optimistically speaking, Illinois wins seven or so conference games. That’s assuming it beats fellow lower-tier teams AND steals a couple. If the Illini can win-out the rest of the non-conference (Mizzou & FAU) and pick up seven league games, that’d put their record at 13-18, nearly the same as last season.
Realistically, Illinois will probably finish somewhere closer to 11-20, unless Kipper Nichols, Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili all perform at an all-conference level. These four have been the catalysts for Brad Underwood this season, but the quartet hasn’t been on the same page for a single game this year. If Frazier and Dosunmu are on, then Bezhanishvili and Nichols have been cold and vice versa.
But it could get as bad as the Illini finishing somewhere around 8-23. The last time Illinois didn’t reach double-digit wins? You’d have to go all the way back to 1975 when Gene Bartow finished 8-18 in his only season as head coach at Illinois. Simply put, this team needs a win tomorrow in the worst way.
It’s going to take a complete effort from the entire roster for Illinois to be competitive in the Big Ten, and tomorrow will be the last chance to gauge where this team is for the conference season.
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