Welcome back to the Tournament Illini fans! Selection Sunday was very generous in handing us a 7-seed, but I will take it! On Friday around 3:40 pm Central, Illinois will play #10 Colorado in Austin, Texas.
This was an exciting year of college basketball, because so many unexpected things occurred. No one could hold on to the #1 seed, and Gonzaga finished with one of the best records (actually, THE best) record in college basketball. Just two teams beat those Bulldogs, and one of them plays in Champaign, Illinois.
Congrats to new head coach John Groce, who took virtually the same team with a losing overall record last year into this year’s field of 64 (68, whatever). There were some tough moments in the regular season, such as losing at home to Northwestern by a horrific margin, but the Illini righted themselves as the year wound down. They proved that when they’re hot, they can beat anyone. But, when they’re not, they stink. So that’s the problem: which team is going to show up on Friday?
Colorado has some scary beasts in Spencer Dinwiddie, a 6-6 guard who is averaging 15.6 points per game. They’ve also go three guys taller than 6-10, so we’re not going to kill them necessarily in the height department. Another standout is Andre Roberson, a 6-7 forward averaging 10 points and 11 rebounds a game. The good news is, aside from Dinwiddie and Roberson, Colorado isn’t all that deep. I will admit I’ve only seen them play once this year, and that was when they were robbed of a win at Arizona thanks to some questionable calls by the refs. They ended up losing in OT. I have questioned how good AZ really is all season, so can’t say I’m THAT impressed that Colorado ended up beating them in the second meeting (and then losing in the PAC 12 Tourney).
Hey Brandon Paul, this is your LAST CHANCE; Photo by Cary Frye
The Buffaloes got smoked by Kansas, losing by nearly 40 points. They also lost to Oregon State at home and at Wyoming. They beat a ranked Baylor early in the season, but Baylor is now in the NIT. They also beat Oregon twice, and had that aforementioned win against Arizona. They haven’t faced a Big Ten opponent all season, and I’m hoping that it will be a rude awakening.
That being said, we haven’t faced a PAC 12 opponent, either. It’s going to take some finessing for the guys to understand that fouls are going to be called differently. I would be shocked if Nnanna Egwu DIDN’T foul out, and Sam McLaurin might suffer a similar fate. As long as the guys are productive during their minutes, I don’t care how much time they spend riding the bench.
So here’s what I’m hoping happens. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are set free by the absence of a Big Ten defense and make shot after shot. Tyler Griffey realizes it’s now or never and plops in a couple 3′s as well. Joseph Bertrand realizes that this is his team next year, and he’s got to put out a good showing before he’s the one in charge. Tracy Abrams finds his shot as well, and gets the ball in the right hands at the right time.
I believe what it really comes down to is Paul and Richardson understanding that this is it. They have only won one Tournament game in their entire careers at Illinois (UNLV in 2011). I’m not asking for a trip to the Final Four (well…), but let’s just get past one team. Illinois has played well on neutral sites, and started the season off as the Maui Invitational Champs. They’ve played a total of 15 games against nine teams that made this year’s NCAA Tournament, compiling a record of 6-9. Colorado, on the other hand, has played 9 games against 5 teams, with a record of 4-5.
Another X factor, of course, is Coach Groce. His patience turned Ohio into one of last year’s darlings, and let’s see if he can sprinkle that happiness over the Illini this year. I don’t like making picks when it comes to my guys, but I’m planning on watching them play again on Sunday.
The game will be on Friday, March 22 at 3:40 Central on TNT.