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How Illinois’ February will tell us everything we need to know about March

The next four weeks are pivotal.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The college basketball season always seems to fly by. I follow college basketball religiously yet was still shocked when I realized that Illinois has already played 45% of its conference schedule, following its win over Indiana on Saturday.

It felt like just yesterday that Illinois dominated Rutgers to open up the Big Ten season, but that game was nearly two months ago.

A lot has happened since then, on and off the court. Illinois has gone 9-4 since its win in Piscataway.

They upset FAU in the Garden and battled to the end with Tennessee. They won five of their next six, beating Missouri, Northwestern, and Michigan State in the process. The Illini slipped up against Maryland, bounced back with wins over Michigan and Rutgers, but threw away a game to Northwestern this week.

Saturday’s win over Indiana was needed. It’s clear that Illinois is still trying to hit its stride again with the recent re-addition of Terrence Shannon Jr. to the lineup.

With its Big Ten title hopes still alive, Illinois needs to find its groove quickly. Their next eight games are as follows: at Ohio State, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State, vs. Michigan, at Maryland, at Penn State, vs. Iowa, and vs. Minnesota.

Illinois probably needs to win seven of these games if it wants to win the Big Ten regular season championship. Losing more than one of the eight games will likely be a big blow to Illinois’ tournament resume as well.

The Big Ten is down this season. It looks like only six or so teams will be dancing come March. The Illini need to defend their home court and steal some wins on the road.

I truly don't think Illinois winning seven of its next eight games is impossible, even though they've struggled a bit recently.

Illinois will catch Ohio State at the right time, as they've lost five of their last six games. Still, winning on the road is difficult no matter the opponent.

The Illini are lucky to play the Huskers in Champaign. Nebraska is 13-1 in Lincoln and 1-5 on the road this season.

Traveling to East Lansing to play Michigan State on Feb. 10 will arguably be the most difficult test for Illinois over the next month. That says something about the strength of the conference this year.

MSU is 12-8 and sub-.500 in conference play. They have the talent, but haven’t been able to put it all together this season. Tom Izzo gave the Illini a run for their money a few weeks ago in Champaign, but the Illini pulled out a win, improving to 4-0 in their last four vs. Izzo.

Illinois will then play a Dug McDaniel-less Michigan team. I don't picture this being the game in which Juwan Howard earns his first victory against Illinois as Michigan’s head coach. Crazier things have happened, though.

If you don't think Michigan State will be Illinois’ hardest test in February, then you'll probably argue that it will be its road game at Maryland. Brad Underwood is 2-7 against Maryland. It doesn't seem to matter how good or bad either team is...Maryland always finds a way to win.

The Terps projected to be one of the better teams in the conference heading into the season, but had a miserable start to their 2023-24 campaign. They've looked slightly better as of late, however. Regardless, Illinois still needs to find a way to get past the immovable object that is Maryland basketball.

The orange and blue will then close out February with a trio of games against mediocre at best teams. Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota are all in the bottom half of the conference this season, and Illinois gets to play two of them at home in February.

Penn State had Illinois’ number in 2022-23, beating the Illini three times. They returned an almost entirely new roster this season, as head coach Micah Shrewsberry left for Notre Dame. They've lost four of their last five games.

Iowa and Illinois had some entertaining battles during the Ayo-Garza days, but Illinois has owned the Hawkeyes recently, winning five of the last six. Iowa still has a great offense, but has struggled mightily on the road this season.

Lastly, Minnesota will come to town to close out the February slate. The Golden Gophers haven’t beaten Illinois since I was in eighth grade. For some context, I’ll be attending this game as a University of Illinois student.

Bart Torvik projects Illinois to win six of the eight games I’ve mentioned. He favors Ohio State in a toss-up game on Tuesday and has Michigan State favored by three in two weeks.

Win seven of the next eight and you're probably in serious contention for a Big Ten title. If Illinois manages to do this, they'll head to Madison on March 2 having won eight of its last nine games.

After that, they host Purdue in a game on March 5 that is almost guaranteed to have significant Big Ten title implications.

Illinois proved it belonged with Terrence Shannon Jr. early in the season. They proved they belonged without him when he was suspended. Now, they have to once again prove they're still contenders by taking care of business in February.