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Illinois jumps to No. 6 in latest AP poll


NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, once Ayo and Kofi announced they would return to Champaign for another season, all had expectations of how good this Illinois team could be.

And then, they lost to Baylor. And Mizzou. And Rutgers. And then back-to-back at home to Ohio State and Maryland. And, understandably, I think some of us had our doubts.

But now? There’s really no doubt.

After rattling off their fourth Big Ten win in a row, this time over a ranked Wisconsin team on Saturday by a comfortable 15 points, Illinois is back in the top-10 in the AP Top 25 poll. In Monday’s new rankings, the Illini are No. 6. Three of the top six teams are from the Big Ten, with Michigan at No. 3 and Ohio State at No. 4. No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor hold their spots at the top, while Villanova rounds out the top 5 before the Illini.

There’s not really any reason to think the Illini will drop out of there next week. Illinois’ only scheduled game this week (Thursday at Michigan) has been postponed as the Wolverines’ continue their return from their COVID pause. Illinois isn’t scheduled to play again for eight more days, on Feb. 16 against Northwestern at State Farm Center.

If none of the three postponed games get rescheduled, Illinois only has five games left: vs. Northwestern, at Minnesota, vs. Nebraska, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State.

Illinois has already beat three of those teams this season (NW, MN, WI); one of them is the conference’s worst (NEB); and you know they’re gunning for revenge against Ohio State.

I won’t get ahead of myself, but this team can finish 18-5 overall, and 14-3 in Big Ten play.

That’s a Big Ten champion (if the conference doesn’t give it to Michigan), a top-5 team, and a potential No. 1 seed in a COVID year.

Buckle up, it’s going to be fun.