Speak it into existence. Brad Underwood’s squad is trending upward, and while they sit at 9-15, an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is up for grabs in March. The path to the madness is far from an easy one, but if Illinois performs with the same level of intensity and execution they possessed against Michigan State last Tuesday, anything is possible.
Ayo Dosunmu revived a lost season for the Illini with a completely dominating performance against Minnesota in early January. The Golden Gophers entered the State Farm Center with an admirable 13-3 record and left Champaign as twenty-seven-point losers. Dosunmu led the charge with 23 points, sparking interest and garnering national attention. But his shutdown defense deserves praise, too. Considering the Illini’s struggles with in-state recruiting, the freshman from Chicago is a HUGE get for the program.
Dosunmu provided the spark for Illinois, but it’s Giorgi Bezhanishvili that accelerated the team’s ascent to ninth in the conference. A true four on the court forced into the five due to the Illini’s lack of front-court presence. Bezhanishvili helped secure the win against #9 Michigan State last Tuesday, but it was his performance against Rutgers that stole headlines. The native Georgian broke the school’s existing freshman record with 35 points on Saturday, shooting 14/18 from the field.
Tevian Jones provides tremendous value, often off the bench. The forward put up 18 in the Illini’s upset of the #13 Maryland Terrapins. Working with minuscule minutes and opportunities, Jones is making the best of his chances in orange and blue. As Illinois continues to surge, expect Joneses minutes to rise, as well.
Nichols and Dimes
While the freshmen have their fun, the veteran presence from Kipper Nichols and Aaron Jordan flies under the radar. Not the best players on the court, but two regular members of the rotation and two of the longer tenured players on the roster. With an extremely young and inexperienced roster, a year or two with the old men of the squad never hurts. Nichols provided a major push for Illinois in their winning efforts against Nebraska, finishing with 18/6/4 in 29 minutes.
Dr. Frazier’s Lane
After a promising 2017-18 for freshman Trent Frazier, sophomore Trent has seemingly struggled to really take off. Massive scoring performances have come in big losses, but the team’s best performances have come when Frazier isn’t chucking up desperation threes or off-balance drives. In the recent stretch of success for Illinois, the sophomore has played a pivotal role by taking calculated shots and moving the ball.
Jim Boylen’s Wet Dream
This team plays with effort and grit every night on the court. Currently sitting in ninth in the B1G, the ceiling is the roof for this roof. It’s extremely cliche to say “man, this team could be a force next year,” but for the first time in a while, it actually applies to the Illini. But this group is surging now, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t have some fun and play spoilers down the road leading up to March. And with an automatic bid at stake in the B1G Tournament at the United Center, anything is possible. And if “when hell freezes over” is your response, the Kansas Jayhawks are in danger of losing their fourteen year streak atop the Big XII and the devil just dusted off his winter coat.
Illinois entered conference play 4-7. They’re 5-8 in the B1G with victories over Rutgers, Michigan State, Nebraska, Maryland and Minnesota. Michigan State (#10) and Maryland (#25) found themselves in this week’s #SU25 Basketball poll, too.
As a clear underdog, 9-15 Illinois has somehow become a team to beat in the B1G. The B1G tourney in March promises fireworks if Illinois can get past their first opponent.