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Don’t be fooled: Illinois can still make a run

But the stretch run will be a roller coaster for Illini fans.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 04 Illinois at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A college basketball season is a series of ups and downs that can confound, excite, confuse, frustrate, annoy, and exhilarate. We analyze the stats, rely on the eye test, look at historical trends, and dig into recruiting and roster construction. Hell, sometimes we even pray to the basketball gods for tales of redemption during moments of regret.

This year’s Fighting Illini basketball squad has had its share of twists and turns. And as the regular season winds to a close, things will remain unclear until they play out. Here are a few stories that explain the past, present, and future of the season.

The Illini lost a key component.

Starting point guard Skyy Clark left the program in early January. The talented floor general was penciled in as a multi-year starter for a program in need of a long-term solution. His departure left a giant hole in a roster that entered the season with two open scholarships. Without a classic ballhandler and distributor, the offense has occasionally lulled into turnover fits.

Jayden Epps has been a revelation.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 04 Illinois at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The arrival of Jayden Epps into the Illini starting lineup was a lightning bolt. He isn’t the same kind of player as Clark. Epps is a born scorer with an emerging playmaking streak. Though he has had two games with five assists, his star-making performances have revolved around his innate ability to get buckets at all three levels. He’s averaging 10 points per game on the season, despite his current shooting struggles. He’s missed his last 11 treys. If he can recalibrate that segment of his game, he’ll be a primary offensive weapon come march.

Geoff Alexander worked overtime on the trail in-season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 01 Indiana at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For years, Illinois fans have had a fantastical notion of an international pipeline. Message board posters still crack wise about Dustin Ford and the potential Canadian pipeline. Orlando Antigua actually did open up a pipeline to Latin America and the Caribbean with his successful pursuits of Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo (speaking of message board posters…every mention of Curbelo’s name causes a navy tear to fall in a glass of orange Kool-Aid.), RJ Melendez (ditto), and Alfonso Plummer.

Geoff Alexander has been working his European connections to replenish the Illinois roster. He brought in French big man Zacharie Perrin and Italian floor general Niccolo Moretti. Perrin was supposed to be on campus for the summer, but instead enrolled in Kansas prep powerhouse Sunrise Christian. Illinois was able to help Perrin clear his academic hurdles and enroll in Champaign. The plan was for both young Euros to spend their time with strength coach Adam Fletcher (Body by Fletch is another of my favorite message board tropes, along with the Mike Tisdale diet).

Zacharie Perrin left the program.

Perrin’s redshirt was inexplicably burned. And rumors were approaching Austin Hutcherson levels of post hype buzz. And then, in the blink of an eye, he vanished.

I’m not going to speculate about the reasons, but his loss was also a gut punch for a team that needs future frontcourt depth. Perrin’s absence won’t be felt this season, but it will take more great work in the portal to supplement the arrivals of Amani Hansberry and Morez Johnson in the next two seasons.

The basketball gods are sanctioning abominations.

Indiana v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Northwestern is ranked ahead of Illinois. That’s just vindictive.

What’s next? Is Illinois going to draw Houston in round two again?

Jalen Pickett, Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Kobe Brown have all put up career games against the Illini. So two losses to Penn State, an adjustment-free loss against the “rival” (hello again, message boards) Hoosiers, and a loss in the Braggin’ RIghts game have been bitter pills in what is an otherwise good season. Hey, that reminds me…

The Illini are 17-8 and 8-6 in conference.

The bracketology projections have this Illinois team on the 6-line. That’s a pretty solid season considering the palpable consternation. Going .500 down the stretch means a 20-win regular season with double-digit conference wins. This is not some random Groce-era bubble team. This is a deep, talented roster that endures massive shooting slumps and scoring droughts. But more often than not, they prevail. They actually have signature wins.

The roster upheaval has left an indelible mark on the season. But it didn’t ruin the season.

The stretch run will bring back some old friends we all love to see.

Think about the six games Illinois has left. Among those games are:

  • Hunter Dickinson and his constant trash talk are coming to Champaign. He’s at the center of an anti-Illini fan storm. And his club is barely .500. They’re a bubble team. Hopefully, the Illini will slap around the Wolverines as if they were a Wisconsin assistant coach.
  • Illinois gets a rematch against Trayce-Jackson Davis and a matchup against Zach Edey and the Boilermakers. Purdue, the former top team in the country, lost to Northwestern. Again, the whole Northwestern thing is an abomination, and I don’t want to talk about it any more.
  • Just kidding. Illinois gets a chance to right the wrong committed at Welsh-Ryan earlier this season. Northwestern has proven formidable without Pete Nance, who may miss the tournament with the Tar Heels. Those are sentences I never thought I would write.
  • Oh, Ohio State and Minnesota are also on the schedule.

Brad Underwood has won 60% of his games at the University of Illinois.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

And that includes his first two seasons, which were both losing seasons. So the argument that he can’t coach is moot. Yes, the antics and histrionics can be cringe-inducing. And sure, we can question in-game adjustments from time to time. But the Illini have a coach who has put together two completely different staffs that have recruited at an elite level. The Illini are a top-25 national program again, and that doesn’t happen with an incompetent coach.

Fart noises aside, the Illini have been well-coached this season. Unfortunately, Underwood can’t get out there and guard big men. Chester Frazier is out of eligibility and can’t close out on three-point shooters. Tim Anderson can’t step to the foul line in key situations. And Geoff Alexander can’t spot up on the wing and shoot threes. The players have to continue to deliver where they have and increase their efficiency in their weak areas in order to reach this season’s potential zenith.

I know, hot take.