Illinois Basketball has had its fair share of up’s and down’s over the past few seasons and many hoped this would be the return to the big dance for the Illini. Is that hope still feasible or has it become a long shot for this season?
If you’re reading this and are anything like me (a suffering, yet still optimistic, Illinois fan) then so far this season the Illinois Basketball team has given you many things to cheer about. With most good things come the bad though and that is no different here. The Fighting Illini have dished out their fair share of disappointing things to crush your dreams again too.
After Sunday night’s blowout win over an offense-less Purdue team, the Illini yet again gave their fans, and themselves, a glimpse into what this edition of this once-storied program can be.
On the other end though, they have also shown those same people the other side of what they can be. For most fans, they have shown the bad side more often than the Illini faithful would like.
Here’s what I mean.
The Illini started off the year with a game against Nicholls State. The Colonels took them to overtime until the Illini finally pulled out a win. They then traveled out west and took care of business against Grand Canyon before facing then #21 Arizona in Tucson. A one-point halftime deficit turned into a 21-point blowout and Illinois went back to the freezing cold Midwest at 2-1.
After four buy games, the Illini went into the Big Ten/ACC challenge at 6-1.
Miami led by as much as 27 in the first half and luckily for Illinois they were able to fight back and only lose by 2. The next game was just as heartbreaking as then #3 Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr. hit a deep three to finish off a 15-point comeback in a one-point win.
Follow that up with an upset of #5 Michigan and, two games later, a loss to Missouri which should have been a win. Follow that up with a blowout loss to Michigan State in East Lansing and then a throttling of Purdue at home. All over the place, I know.
This is just a testament to what this season has entailed for the orange and blue.
Is the hope of dancing in March out the window yet though? No, I truly believe that its way too early to say Illinois doesn’t have a chance at the tournament. With the way the Big Ten is this year, the conference slate will give the Illini plenty of opportunities to show who they really are and can hopefully propel them into the 68-team field come March.
If the Illini are to win big games and finish .500 or better in the Big Ten though, which I believe is necessary, then they must do a couple of things.
First, they must find a balance between outside and inside scoring. Something they did well against Purdue, the Illini were able to knock down outside shots while also getting to the rim in transition and getting stud big man Kofi Cockburn touches in the paint. Without this, each game turns into a replay of the Michigan State blowout and leaves the Illini vulnerable and one-sided.
Second, they must continue to rebound at a high level. Illinois leads the country in rebound margin as of now and this needs to continue if they are to be successful the rest of the season. Of course, Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili are able to rebound well but guys like Alan Griffin and Andres Feliz are two guys that, if they can continue to step up and play hard-nosed basketball, can allow for many second-chance opportunities and more possessions overall.
Lastly, let’s talk about the aforementioned Alan Griffin. After getting sparse minutes as a freshman, Griffin has really come on this season and, as of late, has been a spark for the Illini. Griffin needs to continue to get touches. His 16-point, 12-rebound double-double shows why and was a big reason why his team was so successful in the win against Purdue. His ability to shoot a high percentage from deep, as well as his newly found confidence in making big plays, just gives the Illini one more weapon in their lineup.
If the Illini are hoping to see their name pop up on the screen during Selection Sunday then they need to continue to do these three things. Multiple guys (i.e. Trent Frazier) will need to continue to step up and help the stars. If they continue to play as they have in their big wins, and not like they have in their bad losses, then the Illini could be a sneaky team come the postseason.