Matt Rejc: Big Ten Runners Up, wins over Michigan and Rutgers
Having the Big Ten regular season championship in hand makes the Big Ten Tournament so much less stressful. The Illini shouldn’t have any trouble handling Michigan in the quarterfinals and Rutgers in the semifinals, but I do see Illinois losing to Purdue in the finals. Zach Edey seems to be Kofi Cockburn’s kryptonite, and I just can’t see the Illini beating the Boilermakers on a neutral court. Regardless, getting two more conference wins in the BTT would be massive from a seeding standpoint, and would likely put Illinois squarely in line for a 3-seed or better in the NCAA Tournament.
Michael Berns: Big Ten Tournament Champions, wins over Michigan, Iowa and Purdue
Let’s make it clear that winning the Big Ten regular season is a lot nicer than winning the Big Ten Tournament, so if my prediction turns out to fall flat on its face, we can still rejoice. Success over the course of months matters more than success over the course of three days. It pains me to say this, but Michigan scares me. They always perform well in March. They beat Indiana (Mich’s first round matchup) in Bloomington by 18 over a month ago, and since then the Michigan freshmen have improved tremendously. Michigan is better now than they’ve been at any point in the year, I reckon. The Illini edge Michigan by 5 points or less on Friday. With Grandison (hopefully) back, Illinois beats Iowa on Saturday and makes it look a bit easier than they did last Sunday when they clinched a share of the B1G title. Then, for the finale, Illinois stops Purdue from winning all 3 games against us this season. The win over
Purdue vaults Illinois to a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament come Selection Show time.
Benjamin Pekay: Loss in Semifinals to Iowa, wins over Michigan
It’s incredibly difficult to defeat a team three times in one season and even more difficult to beat a team two times in one week. The Illini are going to have lots of trouble against Michigan in the quarterfinals. Both games against Michigan have been hard-fought wins. Illinois needed a hot shooting game by Plummer and a big three from Trent to beat Michigan in their second game. If Illinois goes on long scoreless streaks, they could easily fall to Michigan, but I think they will win by 3 points. As we saw on Sunday night, it took lots of missed free throws and some luck misses for the Illini to beat Iowa. Unfortunately, on Saturday the Illini aren’t as lucky and fall to the Hawkeyes in a close game. Keegan Murray will be tough to stop, and it’s unlikely Jordan Bohannon will score 0 points again. Although this will be disappointing, 6 of the last 7 national champions have lost in their conference tournament and Illinois should still earn a 4 seed.
Quentin Wetzel: Loss in Semifinals to Iowa, win over Michigan
Indiana hasn’t made it to Friday of the Big Ten Tournament since Tom Crean was head coach, and it has lost eight of its last 10 games. I’m not sure Michigan is much better than them, but I just can’t pick the Hoosiers to win. And I don’t think I can pick against Illinois in its first game either. It would just feel wrong. I do think I can pick Iowa to beat the Illini though. There’s nobody in the conference that scares me more than the Hawkeyes right now. They would have to beat Northwestern and Rutgers first, but should they make it to Saturday, it’s likely that they would be the favorites. Iowa has won eight of its last 10 games, with all eight of those wins by double digits and four by 20 or more. Had the Hawkeyes shot even close to their season average at the free throw line (74.6%) instead of 10 for 22, they would have beaten Illinois on Sunday too. While Illinois could certainly complete the three-game sweep of Fran McCaffery’s squad, I’m not counting on it. The Illini make the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the second time in 12 years, but they fall short of back to back championships.
Drew Pastorek: Big Ten Champions, wins over Indiana, Iowa, Purdue
The Illini already attained the near-impossible goal of winning the regular season title, so I’m gonna go with my heart rather than my head here. I’ve been a harsh critic of Illinois’ performance at times this season, but the team has demonstrated some steely resolve of late. The Illini catch a break by facing Indiana rather than Michigan in the quarterfinals. IU is pretty much a one-man squad and Trayce Jackson-Davis alone won’t be able to overtake Illinois.
A rematch with the Hawkeyes looms, and Kofi Cockburn exploits his size advantage again; as I tweeted Sunday night, Filip Rebraca wants none of that smoke. While it’s unlikely that Jordan Bohannon scores the same amount of points as me and unlikely the Hawkeyes miss a billion free throws, the Illini are able to squeak out a third win and extend Iowa’s woes against Quad 1 opponents.
Purdue is obviously capable of winning three in a row against Illinois…what kind of fantasy would that be?! In the finale, Kofi is actually allowed to play against Zach Edey and the tandem of Alfonso Plummer & Trent Frazier light up the Boilermakers from downtown.
As Matt mentioned earlier, this tournament will be far less stressful now, and I think Sunday night shook something loose – the relief and exhilaration of that victory will allow the Illini to play unburdened this weekend.
Billy Lawton: Big Ten Runners up, wins over Rutgers and Michigan
As the final day of the Big Ten season showed, any team can win on any given day, so this tournament will likely follow suit with plenty of fireworks and unexpected finishes. With Juwan Howard back in the fold for Michigan, I expect Michigan to come out and play well against the Hoosiers with Hunter Dickinson making life difficult for Indiana star Trayce Jackson-Davis and getting strong perimeter shooting from Eli Brooks and Caleb Houstan. The Hoosiers have had a hard time sustaining offense as of late, with the exception of some strong play from Xavier Johnson as of late. However, I don’t think it will be enough for the Hoosiers as the Wolverines will be ready to play and get more efficient, effective offense.
In the other quarterfinal round matchup, Rutgers has hung their hat on the defensive end all year long, spearheaded by reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell, which should help slow down my presumed second round winner the Iowa Hawkeyes and their high powered offense, just as they did to the Illini in Piscataway. I expect Rutgers to be able to dictate the pace of the game with their strong defensive and get timely shots in big time moments from Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., which should be enough to get them past the Hawkeyes, although Keegan and Kris Murray and Jordan Bohannon will make things come down to the wire.
The Illini will get their chance to redeem themselves in the semifinal round against Rutgers. I expect the Illini to come out with some urgency and energy on both ends. With Coleman Hawkins gaining confidence within himself and Coach Underwood, that bodes well for more versatile lineups that can give Rutgers some problems on both ends. Frazier and Plummer will provide steady shooting to put the Illini ahead for stretches, and Kofi will continue to use his muscle inside for post seals and lane line passes for layups. However, with Rutgers’ stout team defense, this may be a lower scoring affair similar to their recent Penn State matchup. The Illini will have a knack for making the winning loose ball plays, extra passes, and rebounds that they’ve relied on all year that may give them a slight edge over Rutgers and push them into the championship game.
I expect the Illini to match up with the Boilermakers in the final round, a team they struggled with mightily in West Lafayette. While it’s difficult for a team to beat a single team three times in a season, I think this Purdue team is effectively equipped to counter what the Illini want to do with stout perimeter and interior defense, making life difficult for Kofi Cockburn on postups and affecting interior drives with their length on smaller guards like Curbelo, Plummer, and Frazier. With a slowed Illini offense, the Purdue offensive talent from Ivey, Edey, and Williams should carry the day and give the Boilermakers the Big Ten Tournament title.