A Storm is Coming
The 2018-2019 season has been an emotional roller coaster for not only the team but the best fan base in the country. Having spoken to certain players’ families during the rough stretch, I was moved by how much they believed this group would turn it around. It’s not just about nepotism towards their own child, but each parent truly believed that this program could turn it around. Unlike the parents, I haven’t always had unwavering faith in this group. I started out with an optimistic outlook on the season believing that this Illinois team could beat Gonzaga. That one hurt as it almost got the entire fan base behind this team, however this young group continually showed that they didn’t have the experience yet, to finish out games. Then the turning point of the season happened.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ayo Dosunmu’s family at Madison Square Garden during the Maryland game. Despite the Illini struggling in the first half, there was nothing but positive vibes from his family. None of us would have begun to believe what would happen next. The Illini had their best second half of the season outscoring the then 13th ranked Maryland Terrapins 48-33. This is the game that I believe has changed the outlook for the rest of the season.
Since then, the Illini have won 3 out of their last 4 and three straight against NEB, #9 MSU, and RUTG. During this three game stretch it hasn’t just been about the Illini’s Big 3 of Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili; others have stepped up. Against Nebraska, Kipper Nichols had his best game of the season, ending a 4 game scoreless streak for the junior forward. It was nice to see him get out of that slump.
Next, the most underappreciated player on this Illini roster, Andres Feliz, had two stellar performances against MSU and RUTG that went unnoticed by most. Against MSU, his 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals don’t jump out and wow you, but his defense and his pace sped up Cassius Winston, one of the best point guards in college basketball. Feliz was put in a difficult situation against Rutgers when both Illinois lead guards had to sit with foul trouble in the second half. Again, his statistics of 9 points 3 rebounds and 2 assists don’t jump off the board and wow you, however his defensive performance is key to the Illini’s success in the last 7 games of the regular season.
Outlook for the Rest of the Season
The schedule for the rest of the season is as follows.
2-18 @ #20 WIS
2-27 @ #12 PUR
No game in the B1G Ten Conference is easy but this is quite the favorable stretch in my opinion and with how the Illini are playing currently, I would put this group up against any team in the B1G Ten. The key to a successful last 7 games is defense. Currently, Illinois is forcing their opponents to turn the ball over around 13.7 times a game. This is something that has been the staple of Brad Underwood’s defensive culture. This leads into the second point of emphasis for this team and that is scoring off turnovers and in transition. Coach Underwood wants his team to constantly push the ball up the court offensively, and the dynamic back court of Frazier and Dosunmu are leading the way.
Firstly, sophomore guard Trent Frazier has been on an absolute tear from behind the arc during this 5 game stretch, shooting around 51% from three point range while also putting up 16.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal a game. Then there’s the other part of this back court, Ayo Dosunmu. I don’t think it is a secret that Illinois’ freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu is one of the best scorers in college basketball when he gets out in the open court. Through 24 games this season he is averaging 14.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists a game and was named B1G Ten Freshman of the Week after his strong showing against Michigan State and Rutgers respectively.
What Will Happen In The Last 7 Games
The Illini have 4 road games and 3 home games in their last 7 games of the regular season and the Illini have yet to win a true road game this season. I think that will change over this stretch. The first match up is against an inconsistent Ohio State team at the Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio. It’s always a tough game but I think the Illini can come out on top. Despite Ohio State having an advantage over Illinois in the rebounding category, Ohio State does not take care of the ball that well and gives up a decent amount of fast break points. Therefore, if the Illini can turn the Buckeyes over, I see Illinois getting their first true road victory of the season.
Next up, the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center. Illinois has not had a great record there in the last 5 years, losing every year. I think this is a toss up as it rests on the marquee match up of Ethan Happ against Giorgi Bezhanshivili and whether this fundamentally sound Wisconsin team takes care of the ball. Bezhanishvili owned Happ in the first match up, however poor free throw shooting by him and the rest of the Illini, plagued them in the end. However, things have changed for the freshman forward out of the country of Georgia. If you didn’t know already, Bezhanishvili recently broke Illini great Deon Thomas’ freshman single game scoring record with 35 points while also adding 7 rebounds and shooting 78% from the field. I like Bezhanishvili again over Happ in this match up however, winning in the Kohl Center is extremely difficult and therefore I will give the nod to the Badgers in this one. (L)
Then, the Penn State Nittany Lions visit Champaign. This is the first match up between the two and these programs are heading in the opposite directions. While the Illini must be weary of Penn State big man Mike Watkins, I think Illinois’ platoon of guards and improving front court can show the difference in talent between the two programs for a relatively comfortable victory for the Illini.
Following a brief home stand, Illinois will head to West Lafayette to take on a hot Purdue Boilermakers team led by POTY Candidate and junior guard Carsen Edwards. Purdue has been a surprise this year after losing a good chunk of their talent from a year ago, but they are as good as ever. They still have of very reliable three point shooter in senior guard Ryan Cline and a bunch of talented freshman role players. This is a game that could come down to which guards can make a play down the stretch. I think the experienced back court for the Boilermakers will make enough plays to down the Illini. (L)
The next two games will feature the Illini returning back home to Champaign to take on Northwestern and Indiana respectively. Both of these match ups will be revenge games for the Illini as they fell to both on the road in their previous match up. Northwestern and Indiana are both reeling at the bottom of the B1G Ten standings currently and I don’t see any miraculous run coming from either of these two teams. With that being said, I think the Illini will win close games between both of these opponents and improve their overall B1G record to 9-10. (W and W)
Finally, the Illini will have to travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in their final B1G Ten Conference game of the season. Some of Illinois’ worst basketball memories have occurred at the Bryce Jordan Center, (Bruce Weber’s Illini losing 37-33 to Penn State) however I just can’t see this Illini team finishing the regular season on a low note. This win will also give a young Illini team some much needed momentum heading into the B1G Ten Tournament in Chicago, IL.
All in all I see Illinois finishing the regular season at 10-10 in the B1G Ten Conference, 5-2 during this 7 game stretch and 14-17 overall. This would leave the Illini in the 8/9 match up in the B1G Ten Tournament. Who knows, maybe Illinois could ride the momentum by winning the tournament and receiving their first NCAA tournament bid since 2013?
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