For years upon years Illinois Basketball fans have waited for their team to be of relevance on a consistent basis throughout the season. So far this season the Illini have given their fans a big glimpse of what is possible with this edition of the team.
Take a look at the Big Ten standings today. Like normal Michigan State is on top and Maryland is top-3, but Michigan State is not in sole possession of the top spot. A new face to the top of the conference, Illinois Basketball, is even with the Spartans just over halfway through the Big Ten season.
Currently at 16-6 (8-3), the Illini have already surpassed their win total from the previous year and are off to their best start in conference since 2005.
This feat is even more impressive if you take into account their sweep over Michigan and Purdue as well as a very close loss to then #3 Maryland in College Park. They seemed to have learned a lesson after a 20-point blowout loss to Michigan State as, up until Sunday at Iowa, the Illini hadn’t lost.
But have the Illini proven their worth?
That is the question that most people wonder when it comes to this team. Can one look past blowout losses to Arizona early on and Michigan State more recently? Considering the quality of wins that the Illini have on their resume, my answer would be yes. Every team is going to have games where they play bad and there just simply isn’t a reason to why they couldn’t execute. To me those two games are perfect examples of what happens when you don’t show up to play for a full 40 minutes.
The Arizona loss was the third game of the season and the Michigan State loss could have something to do with the fact that Michigan State is hard to beat at home. This Illinois team is much different from early on against the Wildcats and will still have their bumps in the road like they had in East Lansing.
I truly believe that after watching the 7-game win streak, Illinois is on the upswing for good and is in prime position to challenge the Big Ten heavyweights at the top. In a season where not many games are won by the road team in conference, the Illini have prevailed multiple times.
Wins over Rutgers, Wisconsin, Minnesota and sweeps of Michigan and Purdue have been a highlight of the season so far. Even after a loss to #18 Iowa on Sunday in Iowa City, the Illini still proved that they are a hard out even on the road, the Illini were leading for about half the game Sunday and were in it until the end.
This play has led the Illini to their #19 ranking in the Top-25, one they hope to improve even after the loss.
Led by a stellar season from Ayo Dosunmu and freshman Kofi Cockburn, Illinois has proven their worth against quality competition. Dosumnu, who is largely regarded as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led the charge by hitting multiple game-winning shots. Just ask any Wisconsin or Michigan fan and they’ll tell you that Dosunmu is one player you don’t want to let have the last shot.
Cockburn, Alan Griffin, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz have been the major supporting cast alongside Dosunmu and all bring their own aspect to round out a very complete Illinois team. Frazier and Griffin are the sharpshooters, Cockburn the workhorse down low and Feliz is the bulldog that every championship team needs.
If there is one thing for sure, it is that no team will want to see their name paired up against this Fighting Illini team come March, that is if they hope to win that game without a dogfight.