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How Illinois Can Win The Big Ten Tournament

Dare to Dream.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

They can’t.

I don’t think that’s exactly what my editor is looking for, but it’s the truth. We talked about it on this week’s “We Know You Have Sand, Illinois” Podcast, but the current structure requires Illinois to win five games in five days.

As far as I know, the only college basketball team to ever do that is Kemba Walker’s 2011 UConn team that went on to win the National Title. Those 11 games became one of the most miraculous runs college basketball has ever seen. So technically, it’s possible. I’ll revise my statement:

They would need a miracle.

And if that miracle occurs in Chicago this week, I will tattoo the Giorgi cheerios picture somewhere onto my body.

But okay, I’ll play along. Let’s dare to dream. This is how we dance.

Round 1: Northwestern

Northwestern is aggressively bad. They are easily the worst team in the Big Ten. And that includes a Nebraska team that is down to something like six scholarship players and playing some walk-on named Johnny Trueblood. I wish I was kidding.

The futility of this program has killed my spirit over and over again. If they come out and lay an egg against Chris Collins and a Northwestern team that doesn’t even have a point guard, I’m not sure exactly how we’ll react. There’s no excuse in this one.

Round 2: Iowa

Iowa is cratering hard. It’s similar to their 2015-16 season where they were ranked as highly as top-five in the country, lost a ton of games down the stretch, and eventually lost to Illinois in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Sound familiar?

Iowa has lost of five of six, including games to Rutgers, Ohio State and Nebraska (yuck). Fran got caught on an expletive-based rant directed at an official and was suspended for two of those losses. They are in full-on collapse mode. The Hawkeyes are already a lock to make the tournament, so it’s possible that they come out sleepwalking. Of all the single-bye teams, Iowa might be the one you’d want to play

Round 3: Michigan

Michigan has the double-bye and will be the team waiting for the Illini if they manage to win on Wednesday and Thursday. The Illini lost to Michigan in Champaign earlier this season in a game that was much closer than most expected.

Charles Mathews is questionable after being sidelined with an ankle injury for the past few weeks. The St. Rita product is one of the more versatile, two-way players on the Wolverines, and it would certainly benefit the Illini if he stayed on the bench.

Michigan already plays a short rotation, and outside of Mathews, they don’t have a ton of players that could expose the Illini’s lack of athleticism. This is going to be an extremely tough matchup for Illinois. But of all the double-bye teams, there’s a case to be made that Michigan is most ripe for an upset.

A 20-point second half and game-winner from Trent Frazier. Why not?

Round 4: Minnesota

If you’re going to win five games in five days, you’re gonna need some luck and some help in other places of the bracket. In this case, the Golden Gophers upset the Boilermakers in the quarterfinals. And we all know Purdue is a serious matchup problem for the Illini.

The Illini split the season series with the Gophers after blowing them out to get their first Big Ten win back in January. The Gophers are now squarely in the tournament and have even improved their seeding with a very quality win over Purdue. They get complacent. A mixture of early Jordan Murphy foul trouble and truly inept coaching from Richard Pitino gets Illinois to the Championship Game

Round 5: Maryland

At this point we’ve been playing 40-Minutes-Of-Hell style basketball for four days in a row. Everyone’s legs are jello. Trent and Ayo are breaking all sorts of Big Ten Tournament records. The national media is in hysterics because there’s a chance a 20-loss power conference team is going to play in the NCAA Tournament.

The good news is we’ve caught another break. Maryland has beaten Rutgers, Wisconsin and Michigan State to reach the Big Ten Championship Game. They’ve played three games in three days and are also on their last legs heading into Sunday afternoon.

And with one last stroke of good luck, Bruno Fernando turned his ankle in Saturday’s semifinal. It’s nothing serious, but he’s not 100% healthy and the Terps make the decision to protect their First-Team All-Conference center in hopes of getting him ready for the NCAA Tournament.

With tired guards, the Illini lean on Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The big Georgian takes it right at Jalen Smith and shows the media and coaches that they made a terrible mistake when casting their ballots for the All-Big Ten Freshman team. Giorgi has 27 points and 12 rebounds and fouls out Smith in 22 minutes. Cowan is forced to carry the load, but he is forced to deal with Andres Feliz, who seemingly never runs out of energy, and Cowan has an extremely inefficient afternoon.

73-64. Illinois wins.

They’ve done it, Tess.

The Illini (16-20, 12-13 Big Ten) are back in the dance.

C’mon boys. Let’s keep playing. For as long as they’ll let us.

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