Remember when Illinois lost a record 19 games last season? I don't. Especially after the past 8 days. Even though the team was 10-1 I was skeptical. They hadn't beaten anyone I had heard of, and the one chance they had to play someone decent (Clemson), they lost. It looked like Illinois was going to be a good defensive Big Ten team fighting for that last Big Ten NCAA berth come March.
Well that has all changed in the last week. Two enormous nationally televised wins against Mizzou and Purdue have put the Illini on the national radar. Are the Illini the best team in the Big Ten? Probably not, but they are legitimate contenders. In a conference known for low road winning percentages, Illinois showed a lot of toughness winning in overtime in West Lafayette last night.
This team has the elements to successfully execute Bruce Weber's three guard quasi-motion pick-roll offense. Four players are averaging 12 points and Chester Frazier is finally becoming the pass-first point guard who takes care of the ball that the Illini need. This balanced and efficient offense is the perfect complement to what has been a lights out defensive team. The weaknesses in the backcourt mostly consisted of an inability to score and McCamey's lackadaisical defensive approach. Well both of those problems seem to have evaporated. It also looks like Alex Legion will be a big contributor on both ends of the court as he slowly earns more minutes. Davis and Tisdale, thought to be too inexperienced and soft, have proven that they are anything but. Both look like they will be solid contributors and showed last night that they can defend the paint as well as any of the big boys in the Big Ten.
All that being said, I am getting a little ahead of myself. The Big Ten is no joke, and even though it is not very strong at the top, it is a solid conference and the road will not be easy. Teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, and the emergence of Tubby Smith's Gophers will all be tough Ws. Regardless, Illinois has shown it can play tough on the road against the cream of the crop.
A 4 seed? A 5 seed? Maybe that's dreaming, but it is a real possibility. Thank god the Big Ten schedule started, I was getting bored of watching Illinois play Tulane, Hawaii and Eastern Michigan.