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Bring on the Postseason

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The Big Ten tourney awaits the Illini following a thrilling win at Ohio State.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Jubilation. Excitement. Revelry. Those are just a few things that the above picture encapsulates. The Illinois Fighting Illini scored a thrilling late comeback win, 73-68, over Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday afternoon. The regular season is complete and Illinois heads into next week’s Big Ten Tournament at 20-6 overall, 16-4 in league play. Let’s review this team’s notable achievements.

  • Brad Underwood’s Illini finished with the most Big Ten wins in program history — the national runner-up team in 2004-05 had a better winning percentage (.9375) but there were only 16 conference games at that time. But, hey, at least we actually played all of the games...
  • The media has raved about Coach Underwood’s drastic change in defensive strategy from his arrival in Champaign to now. And remember how horrible Illinois was at three-point shooting last season (30.9%, 294th in Division I)? The Illini are in the top 20 this year (38.2%).
  • Da’Monte Williams entered the 2020 season as a putrid 27.6% three-point shooter (35-for-127). This season, DMW connected on 30-of-55 attempts, finishing at 54.5%. What a turnaround.
  • Freshman point guard Andre Curbelo had five consecutive double-digit scoring games to end the regular season. If he can improve from outside (5-of-26) and reduce his turnovers (70 in 26 games), Curbelo is going to be scary good. We’ve already seen flashes, he should only get better with time.
  • Ayo. Dos. The Closer. The Savior. The Dark Knight. The Player of the Year. Whatever you choose to call him, he’s been phenomenal.
  • The Illini have won five straight games against AP Top 25 teams, and four in a row versus top-10 opponents (@ Duke, Iowa, @ Michigan, @ Ohio State).
  • Illinois went 11-1 in its final 12 games, including 3-0 without Ayo. To use stock market parlance, past performance doesn’t indicate future results, but that’s the kind of basketball you want to be playing heading into March Madness.

The Big Ten Tournament begins on Wednesday in Indianapolis, but Illinois has the coveted double-bye and won’t take the court until Friday.

The Fighting Illini virtually guaranteed themselves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with Saturday’s win (DID YOU KNOW ILLINOIS HASN’T BEEN THERE SINCE 2013?!), and it’s reasonable to expect a comfy win in the Round of 64 — no UMBC/Virginia shenanigans, please. But a group of good, pretty good, above-average, and (some) outstanding teams comprise the rest of the field. Illinois needs to stay ready, not just get ready.

Buckle up, let’s go.