As the Illini hit the home stretch of Big Ten play and the regular season, streaks of seven-straight wins and four-straight losses have Illinois right on the cusp of a double-bye for the Big Ten Tournament. After a put-back dunk and what looked to be a gruesome injury to star Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois’ chances of cracking a top-10 seed in the Big Dance was slipping through its fingers.
On Tuesday, word reached social media that not only was Ayo playing against No. 9 Penn State on the road, but he was starting. His impact was felt instantly as a rejuvenated Illinois roster fought and battled the entire game. Kofi Cockburn turned in another impressive performance putting up 14 points and seven rebounds, even after picking up two early fouls. Da’Monte Williams was the unsung hero, harassing the Nittany Lions star forward Lamar Stevens all night long. Williams held Stevens to 13 points on just 3-of-11 shooting from the field. Alan Griffin chipped in off the bench with nine points, and Andres Feliz made two very timely buckets in the second half. Trent Frazier played his normal stifling defense, but struggled shooting from the floor. The junior did hit two free throws at the end of the game to essentially ice it, however.
But this game was all about Dosunmu. Boosting his draft stock game by game, at points on Tuesday he just took over. Posting 24 points and four rebounds, he was the main facilitator all night. The most critical point of the game — after a Feliz rebound was whistled a jump ball — there was roughly 30 seconds left in regulation. In the timeout Penn State coach Pat Chambers told his players that Ayo would go right and try to create. No. 11 took the ball dribbled right, crossed back left, pulled up for a floater in the lane, and nailed the dagger. The basket put the Illini up four with little time left and further cemented his status as an Illini legend.
The win at Penn State moved the Illini to 17-9 overall and a 9-6 mark in the Big Ten. This basically punched Illinois’ first tournament berth since the 2013 season. A Quad-1 record of 6-7 and four conference road wins is plenty. Looking ahead, Illinois has three very winnable games in a row. It hosts Nebraska, travels to Northwestern, and then welcomes Indiana back into town. These three teams currently sit at the bottom of the Big Ten standings and could prove a nice stretch to get things back on track for the Illini, potentially locking up a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. They finish the regular season visiting Ohio State, then hosting Iowa…. A game the Illinois’ fanbase is very much awaiting.
After posting a seven-game conference winning streak earlier in the season, it will be very difficult to close it out with six in a row. I expect Illinois to go 4-1 in this stretch, slipping up to either Ohio State or Iowa. This would give the Illini a great chance of a top-4 seed for the Big Ten Tournament.
Assuming the Illini finish 4-1, that would bring their overall record to 21-10 and 13-7 in conference. A win in the Big Ten Tournament, and I can easily see Illinois as a 5- or 6-seed come March.