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How Illinois can win the Big Ten Tournament

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This is the best we’ve felt about Illinois’ postseason chances in a long, long time.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

13-7 in Big Ten Conference play. The Illinois Fighting Illini swept the Michigan Wolverines. They beat the conference’s top seed, the Wisconsin Badgers on the road in Madison — the only team to topple the Badgers at the Kohl Center this year. The Illini won at Penn State. They blew out the Purdue Boilermakers twice. They beat a ranked Iowa Hawkeyes team in a revenge game on Senior Night.

There is plenty of reason to celebrate Brad Underwood and his Fighting Illini’s accomplishments this season. There is still work to be done. The Big Ten Tournament is up for grabs. As is the NCAA Tournament beginning next week.

Here is what Illinois has to do to win the Big Ten Tournament and put another banner up at the State Farm Center. All it takes is three wins at a neutral site in Indianapolis. Easier said than done, but as all of us who have watched this team know anything is possible, and no game is ever out of reach.

Ride Ayo Dosunmu’s hot hand

Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Almost seven years ago today, this happened at the 2013 Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago:

The current Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team is a lot better than that 2012-13 team was, but make no mistake: Brandon Paul was a big-time Big Ten player who was made for a moment such as the one in the video above.

The funny thing is, is that Brandon Paul in isolation and getting his shot up from his spot in 2013 — that’s the exact spot where Ayo Dosunmu likes to go with the ball, drive and pull up from midrange for the game winning dagger. Dosunmu has done it so many times this season, and now he’ll have the opportunity to do it again in an NBA arena.

Ayo Dosunmu has so many traits Illinois looks for in a leader. He’s emotionally calm. He’s confidently humble. He owns up to his mistakes when the Illini lose, and he praises his teammates when the Illini win. Ayo will be successful in whatever he decides to do once the Illini’s run is over because he’s so mature in how he handles himself in all situations.

Trent Frazier’s been struggling on offense. Giorgi’s shot and defensive awareness comes and goes. Ayo is steady and consistent — important factors for a star player in the Big Ten.

It’s hard to imagine any blowouts in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. Close games will happen on a nightly basis. Is there anyone else in the country you’d rather have with the ball in his hands in the closing seconds than Ayo Dosunmu?

Kofi Cockburn: It is your time to dominate... on both ends

Small footnote to start this. I was at the Illinois at Rutgers last month (Ayo did not play), and after one of Kofi’s monster dunks, a Rutgers fan who was sitting next to me asks me: “Is Kofi Cockburn going to the NBA next year?”

I answered him no — not because of anything Kofi Cockburn has or hasn’t done yet, but just because of how the NBA game is not really suited to traditional centers anymore. We can thank the Golden State Warriors for that and just how the professional game has become a perimeter-based game where players 1-5 can make three-pointers and take the ball up the court.

That’s okay. Kofi Cockburn can, has and will continue to dominate the college game just like he’s done all season long. Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza on Iowa, Kaleb Wesson on Ohio State and Xavier Tillman of Michigan State (to a lesser extent) are big guys that have given Kofi Cockburn fits this season — but outside of those three, there is no reason why Kofi Cockburn cannot march into Indianapolis and be the best, most unstoppable force in the tournament.

Defensively, Cockburn improves by the game in reading opposing offenses and knowing where he has to be on the help-side to go for a game-turning block. He’s got to own the paint and be the rim protector he knows he can be.

He’s had less than stellar games, sure. Now is the the time where Kofi Cockburn should be playing his best basketball. He’s smarter and knows the game a lot better than he knew it a few months ago. It’s time to prove it on the national stage.

Help outside of Ayo & Kofi: Trent Frazier? Alan Griffin? Kipper?

A recipe for success is when the star players play to their potential and when the Illini get some contribution from elsewhere.

Trent Frazier expends so much of his energy on defending the opponent’s best guard. Whether or not that’s a factor in his shooting slump is up for debate, but as Brad Underwood reminded everyone in his post-game press conference after the Iowa game last weekend, Trent can go off — at anytime. Will the Big Ten Tournament be the place where Trent Frazier once again catches fire? It would be the difference in the Illini taking home the trophy.

Alan Griffin has scored only single digits the past three games against Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana. He had just two rebounds against Iowa, three against Ohio State and one against Indiana. There were times this season — at Northwestern being the prime example — where Griffin is everywhere and plays like the best player on the court. Making threes and pull-up jumpers. Grabbing rebounds like he is a man possessed. If Alan Griffin has a stat-line similar to the one he had against Northwestern — 24 points and seven boards — and Ayo and Kofi are on their game, Illinois is truly unbeatable.

Kipper Nichols deserves some love after his performance against Iowa. His 10 points was a season high for him. He only had three rebounds, but in a close game that went down to the last second — those three rebounds were critical, especially when Giorgi is in foul trouble and/or is not playing well to the point where Kipper has to come in and play some of the 5. Kipper is long, athletic and has the ideal body for a wing player.

Two seasons ago in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament, Illinois lost to Iowa in the opening round. Kipper had a career high 31 points in that game. 31 points! For Kipper Nichols! With a better squad around him, even just a jolt of scoring and rebounding off the bench would do wonders for a team looking to break through and win the conference tournament.

Win or Lose — Keep Your Eyes on the Bigger Prize

Yes, the Big Ten Tournament is important. Yes, raising a banner at the State Farm Center means a lot, especially to the Illini players who will not be back next year. If Illinois were to lose and not win the Big Ten Tournament, it is important to keep your head up.

Losses can be devastating. Of course they are. The gauntlet of the Big Ten Tournament and the Big Ten regular season schedule will be beneficial when the Illini are faced against an opponent they have not played yet this season in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Tournament presents itself as a clean slate, where ill-wills of battling against rivals is over, and now it’s just the basketball — five versus five on the neutral court.

Size. Defense. Rebounding. Clutch scoring. Road warriors. Nice mix of veterans and a freshman phenom in Kofi Cockburn. Those are things that will carry in the NCAA Tournament.

March Madness is just getting started. We are officially underway.

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