The fact that I’m even letting myself write this column BLOWS MY MIND.
Illinois hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since I was 16; I have now been out of college for nearly two years. And yet, here I am, not satisfied quite yet with the Illini being the No. 6 team in the nation and a shot at being a No. 1 seed in the tourney.
Let’s take a quick look at the names still ahead of the Illini in the current rankings. (A reminder: These change basically every week. So in four days when there’s new rankings, it’s probably going to be a different five teams in front of Illinois, if the Illini were to stick at No. 6.).
- Gonzaga: If you’re a college basketball fan, you know Gonzaga. You probably can’t say what city the Bulldogs play in (Spokane) or name the rest of the teams in the WCC (don’t forget about the San Fran Dons!), but you know Mark Few’s team will be up there every year. Especially the past two years, when they’ve had a stranglehold most of the time on the top-spot in the rankings. Sure, the level of competition in the WCC isn’t great — although, BYU gave them a run for their money on Monday — Gonzaga doesn’t slip up. You’ll see a trend here.
- Baylor: Ah yes, the Bears. I thought Texas Tech would be the program that had this kind of staying power out of the state of Texas after making the championship game two years ago — and the Raiders are still top-10 as well! — but Baylor has really secured the spot as the best team in the nation not named Gonzaga, or possibly, the best team in the nation. Undefeated still at this point in a difficult conference and on a COVID pause, the Bears don’t slip up. At least so far.
- Michigan: About to skip over this one, but except for one fluky Big Ten loss to Minnesota, Michigan doesn’t slip up. Whatever. Until they lose another game or two, they’re this good.
- Ohio State: A team that Illinois had a chance to beat, the Buckeyes are really, really good. Chris Holtmann has something happening in Columbus, and Ohio State, at least this year, has no real bad losses. We’re getting there. Stay with me.
- Villanova: I’m not sure Villanova is better than Illinois, but, sure, No. 5 is Villanova, a two-time champion since 2016 and a proven winner that knows how to handle this point in the season.
- And then Illinois.
Something there doesn’t fit. And if you ask the average college basketball fan, they’re probably like, “Yeah, this is right, ok, sure, Villanova belongs there, ILLINOIS WHAT THE F&$K! OVERRATED!” The name recognition isn’t there yet. The name recognition for Illinois teams in the mid-2000s exist, but I really don’t know if Ayo Dosunmu is a household name or if anyone 150 miles either way of I-57 knows how to pronounce Cockburn.
But in the one season we’ll have this crew together, the expectation at this point is for Illinois to be right where it is, if not higher. And, reasonably, Illinois could get as high as No. 3 by the end of the regular season with a Michigan loss (or two), a win over Ohio State to close out the slate, and a bunch more wins.
Illinois can’t slip up.
And there we go. I got to my point nearly 600 words later.
The Illini are clearly going dancing. But I don’t think that’s enough. Not with the schedule still facing them.
- @ Nebraska (bad)
- vs. Northwestern (play that second half again twice PLEASE)
- @ Minnesota (demolished last time, no reason they can’t again)
- @ Michigan State (bad this year)
- @ Wisconsin (outmatched by Illinois)
- vs. Nebraska (ugh)
- @ Ohio State
- And maybe Michigan??
Illinois has a duty to win out until March 6 against Ohio State. The losses earlier in Big Ten play (close games to Rutgers, OSU and Maryland) aren’t coming back to haunt the Illini since, well, they’re where they want to be.
But there’s no more room for slipping.
This really could be a magical season. The Illini are set up for success: A regular season title, a potential conference title, a No. 1 seed, and a team nobody would want to play in the tourney.
Everything is set up.
Go finish the job.