Let’s face it, everyone assumes that the Illini will lose tomorrow in Ann Arbor, so there is no pressure! With that being said, why not go in feeling relaxed and confident, and accidentally fool everyone and grab a really exciting win. Not only are the Illini supposed to lose, but it really isn’t going to affect their tournament resume in a negative way if they do what’s expected.
After the home win vs. Penn State on Thursday – despite how ugly it was- the Illini are right on track to earn an invite to the Big Dance next month. Thanks to a 5-game conference win streak that started with an upset over Indiana and included wins at Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Northwestern and vs. Penn State, they’re sitting pretty at .500 in the conference right now and wiggled their way into the sole No. 6 spot in the conference. A loss on the road to a 7th ranked Michigan (who by the way is undefeated at Crisler Center) is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
With just four games left in the season, Illinois needs to protect the home court against Nebraska next weekend, and maybe try to grab a win at Iowa on March 5. If that happens, then losses at Michigan and at Ohio State to end the season on March 10 won’t matter. Although, a win at Michigan would give Illinois wins over 5 top 15 teams, which is unmatched by any other team but Indiana. At that point our stock would soar and we could be very pleasantly seeded come the end of March.
Thursday’s PSU Win
So let’s get back to that 64-59 win over Penn State on Thursday. D.J. Richardson, who is averaging 17.3 ppg over the last nine games, had a team-high 18 points. Brandon Paul was right behind him with 16, and also had two steals, three rebounds and two assists. He also become the 10th Illini to score over 1,500 points, and he can move into the 9th place on the points list with 18 more. Everyone else was rather quiet, which is why the game was closer than it should have been.
Poor, lonely Penn State has zero wins in the conference, and has been struggling all season. Tim Frazier, a pre-season All Big Ten selection, suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the year. They’ve got some talent with D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall (who had a game-high 20 points), but 15 turnovers and sending the Illini to the charity stripe 36 times killed them. Just imagine what the score would’ve been had the FT percentage been higher than the dismal 63%.
The game dragged on for way too long, as Penn State really didn’t understand when it was time to throw in the towel. That’s nice that they didn’t want to give up, but they were down six points with 22 seconds to go, and fouled the Illini three more times. Granted they finally made some 3′s and got within 3 points with 4 seconds to go, but at that point was yet another foul really necessary? Also, was it me or does PSU coach Patrick Chambers really likes to yell at his guys – like a lot?
Anyway, a win’s a win and I’m not upset with the guys at all. The matchup was awkward, and PSU had a strong defense. I feel sort of bad for them with 0 wins, but of course I didn’t want the first one to come on our court!
So tomorrow, Illinois will head to Ann Arbor with the knowledge that a win is always nice, but certainly not a requirement for any reason. So I want to see a loose, energetic team with nothing to lose. And, I just don’t want to be embarrassed. If we go home empty handed, shrug, no biggie, on to the Cornhuskers next week.