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Maybe the 20s really will belong to the Illini

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Illinois is a real contender.

Evan McClintock | The Champaign Room

As most of you are probably aware, this win streak kicked off roughly a month ago at home against a respectable Purdue squad. Illinois made easy work of the Boilermakers, and did so in historic fashion. It was an impressive evening for Brad Underwood and his defense, holding Purdue to its lowest point total in over 70 years.

Dreams of a NCAA Tournament bid were falling through the cracks with a tough stretch on the horizon: at Wisconsin, vs. Rutgers, at Purdue, at Michigan.

And then, the Illini (and I) went on the road to Madison, Wisconsin, and did something they haven’t done in over a decade — win at the Kohl Center. It had been over 3,600 days since Illinois came out of Wisconsin the victors, and all it took was a Michael Jordan-esque (no, seriously) pull-up jumper from Ayo Dosunmu to win it.

Then came wins against Rutgers, Northwestern, another overdue triumph against Purdue at Mackey Arena, and the Illini even got the better of Michigan in Ann Arbor to slide into first place in the Big Ten.

Now, full disclosure, I’d like to admit that I said this team had Sweet 16 potential back in early August. (Check out me calling my Alan Griffin and Adam Miller shots, 21:00-23:30.)

It was just a matter of putting the pieces together and establishing the team’s identity. At the halfway point of the Big Ten season, it’s evident that’s defense.

In the month of January — the first month of the 2020s — Illinois went 7-1, its lone loss being on Jan. 2 up in East Lansing. The Illini have climbed as high as No. 19 in the AP Poll. Not including the Illini’s matchup against Michigan State, they’ve held opponents to 57.6 points per game during the seven-game win streak. And no longer are there doubts that Illinois is a tournament team.

Illinois entered the Minnesota game Thursday night as the No. 1 team in the Big Ten in opponents’ field goals made, opponent two-point percentage, opponents’ made three-pointers, points against, and opponent scoring average. The squad ranks No. 2 in opponents’ field goal percentage, opponents’ three-point attempts, opponents’ three-point percentage, opponents’ free throws made, opponents’ free throw attempts. You see where I’m going with this?

The one constant so far has been Illinois’ ability to shut down teams even when baskets are hard to come by. Now, at the midway point of the conference season, the Illini enter their most crucial stretch thus far.

As it stands, Illinois is 8-2, tied atop the Big Ten leaderboards with Michigan State. With five straight games against ranked opponents looming, that could change rather quick. But this team is already doing things that haven’t been done in 15 years: sweeping Purdue, sweeping Michigan, beating Wisconsin on the road. Why should we expect any differently now? After all, it’s the defenses that travel in the Big Ten, and Illinois has the best one. Look no further than the fact that Illinois is one of just two teams in the Big Ten with a record above .500 on the road.

Now, we asked you all just over a week ago if Illinois could actually win a conference title this year. Understandably so, most of the comments disagreed with the notion. Since then, though, Illinois has closed out Michigan on the road and pulled off a home contest against Minnesota. There are serious Big Ten title implications at this point. Enough has been made about Ayo Dosunmu’s brilliance with games coming down to the wire, and he’s almost certainly a lock for All-Big Ten First Team. Kofi Cockburn is running away with Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and Illinois is staring down a potential double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

It’s at least the most promising season since that 2008-09 squad went 24-10 and 11-7 in the Big Ten, and maybe even since Dee Brown and James Augustine’s senior year.

Five games from now, we’ll have a much more realistic view of what this team looks like, but if the last seven games are any indication, we’ve got a legitimate conference contender on our hands.

And there’s still 119 months left to go in the decade.