Piper's points: Unsettling state of affairs

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper analyzes the hierarchy of the Illinois and Northwestern basketball programs.

The Illini basketball season has been a painful one, and Saturday night in Evanston only added to the story.

Illinois (11-14, 3-9) has limped through conference play - needing four overtimes to get two wins against winless Big Ten teams. Injuries have been a recurring and undeniable storyline. After Saturday, the Illini have had seven different players miss a combined total of 74 games this season.

But they've still had chances with talented players on the floor.

Malcolm Hill had the ball in his hands with a chance to tie or win the game, but he couldn't get off a shot that counted. Earlier in the second half, the Illini allowed Northwestern guard Tre Demps to hit four threes on consecutive possessions.

The lack of execution has been frustrating.

Coming into the game, Illinois was a seven-point underdog. They still had injuries keeping their starting frontcourt on the bench, which has happened the entire Big Ten season - with the exception of Mike Thorne Jr. playing at Indiana.

But it was still only Northwestern. Still a team that had lost six of their last seven. Still the always ambitious but not too threatening "little brother".

At least, that's from the Illinois perspective. That's how Illini nation has always liked to picture Northwestern. It's the rivalry that only one side really wants to admit to.

But "big brother" has been vulnerable, and the reaction on the other side was fitting.

Before tipoff, a trio of Northwestern student reporters sat in the media room for the pregame meal. They fit the expected profile. They were young, khaki-wearing journalists who could probably be the subject of some name-calling to the Orange and Blue eyes.

However, this time it was the other way around.

"What do you think about tonight?"

"We better win. I mean, this team needed a buzzer-beater to beat Chicago State."

(Laughter)

"Yeah, they're bad."

***

It's unsettling to see the roles reversed. The kid who used to get his Hanes underwear pulled over his eyes is now on the monkey bars laughing above you. Northwestern is 10th in the Big Ten standings with a 5-8 record. Illinois is tied for 11th at 3-9.

Maybe it's temporary exploitation of circumstance.

The "little brother" sees his chance with the "big brother" in a spot of weakness. With all the body blows in the form of injuries, the Illini basketball program might as well be moving around in a wheelchair. Lesser foes look bigger standing up when you're sitting down.

Is that the case? Or is it more a matter of the "little brother" now being as tall as you are?

After Saturday, the Illini still lead the all-time series 132-40. But even outside of this season, Illinois has not handled Northwestern like they once did. Between 1980 and 2009, Illinois was 53-5 against the Wildcats.

Now, Northwestern has won six of the last 11 matchups since 2010 - beating the Illini once a year in six of the last seven seasons.

***

The trending meter is certainly a relevant matter of discourse. Although they don't look destined for the NCAA tournament this season, Northwestern does appear to be trending up with head coach Chris Collins. The Wildcats won six Big Ten games in both of Collins' previous two seasons, and they are currently sitting with five Big Ten wins and five regular season games to go.

Northwestern will play on the road at Purdue and Michigan in their next two games. But they finish out with Rutgers, at Penn State and Nebraska. If they win three more games, they'll register the first 20-win regular season in program history.

With that at least in reach, it's safe to think things are going in the right direction for Northwestern. It's harder to judge Illinois' status based solely on this season. But it's obvious that things haven't been going up in the form of results.

In the last calendar year - including the end of last season and this season - Illinois is 13-20 overall and 5-14 against Big Ten teams. Northwestern is 22-12 overall and 10-11 against Big Ten opponents.

Obviously, Collins has to get his team to the dance - which is something the program has failed to do since the NCAA tournament began in 1939. That is something Groce has accomplished, but he is about to be part of the first three-year NCAA tournament drought for the program since 1977-80.

When you compare the two, Groce still matches up favorably. He has a 73-56 (.566) record overall at Illinois and a 27-39 (.409) record in the Big Ten. Collins is now 46-45 (.505) overall and 17-32 (.347) in the Big Ten.

They are 2-2 against each other. That makes for a fair comparison. But many Illini fans won't like that there's even a question of which program is in a better position going forward.

***

If Illinois was fully healthy, there's a good chance this conversation wouldn't be taking place. With three projected starters out, Illinois was a basket away from sending it into overtime or winning.

It's worth noting that Northwestern has also gone through injuries this year. After a promising freshman year, Wildcats guard Vic Law was expected to start and be a key contributor. But he underwent shoulder surgery in November and he is on track to receive a medical redshirt.

Northwestern also lost starting big man Alex Olah for a stretch of six games, including the first five Big Ten contests.

But that still doesn't compare to Illinois. As for next season, Northwestern will lose Olah and Demps. The Illini will be without Thorne and Khalid Lewis. On paper, Illinois should be the better team. They have more talent, and they'll have more talent than quite a few teams next year.

In fact, this season could ultimately be deemed as a positive if the Illini put it together next year. Young players like Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Michael Finke have grown through opportunity and they'll be better for it. Not to mention, Illinois will have Hill and Kendrick Nunn back - along with a healthy Leron Black.

But until the potential transforms into results, the Illini find themselves rather low on the Big Ten food chain. The gap between them and the Wildcats isn't as large as some would like to think - and they're actually looking up at them right now.

Northwestern has a bona fide point guard in Bryant McIntosh. They have some talented young bigs in freshmen Dererk Pardon and Aaron Falzon. That frontcourt is bolstered even more next season with the arrivals of in-state products Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barret Benson.

Ultimately, there is talent on both rosters going forward, and both coaches have plans to go above and beyond the status quo. Collins was asked if he thought Northwestern has passed Illinois up when it comes to the revenue sports.

"I don't know, man. I don't want to say that. I have a lot of respect for John - I really do," he said. "He's an outstanding coach, great guy. His teams play hard. We're just trying to handle us."

As for the rivalry, he said he sees it growing over time.

"To me, it's going to be great. I want them to be real good and I want us to be real good. I was fortunate to be a part of probably the most special rivalry in all of college basketball for 20 years. The reason why rivalries can become special is when both are really good," Collins said. "I want to have high-level games because I think that's what Chicago and this state deserves."

At this very moment, Illinois would rather be making rivals out of Indiana or Iowa at the top of the Big Ten. But Northwestern is the rival that Illinois deserves right now.


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