Fact or Fiction: Illini will win out the rest of nonconference play
Fact. The Illini (6-3) had their backs against the wall with three straight losses just two weeks into the season. But they made some big strides to climb out of that hole with crucial wins against N.C. State and VCU last week.
If the Illini can manage to enter Big Ten play with just those three losses after the next four nonconference games, they will have a solid foundation to stand on with the most important part of their schedule in front of them. I think Illinois will get that done.
This week, IUPUI and Central Michigan come to the State Farm Center. No game should be taken for granted, as Winthrop kindly reminded the Orange and Blue. But these are very beatable opponents. IUPUI is 3-5 with double-digit losses to Michigan, Marquette, Illinois State and Eastern Kentucky. Central Michigan (7-2) may be slightly tougher, but they were picked to finish last in the division in the MAC. They lost by 30-plus to St. Bonaventure, and also lost to Arkansas Little Rock. Again, very winnable games.
Then comes the biggest challenge left on the schedule: BYU (5-3) at the United Center. The Cougars have won no fewer than 20 games the past 11 seasons, and they're 288-94 under Dave Rose. But BYU lost two of their top three players from last year in Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer. Their 6-foot-10 big man Eric Mika is having a heck of a season thus far with more than 20 points and eight boards per game.
As a whole, you can expect BYU to be a solid, well-coached team. They've played at a fast pace with a quick-trigger offense for a number of years. This season, they are third in the country in adjusted tempo with an average of 13.3 seconds per offensive possession. They are capable of scoring it, as they average 88 points per game. But they will give up points too, as they've allowed 90-plus in their three losses: Valpo (92), USC (91) and Utah Valley (114). That loss to Utah Valley is an ugly one on their resume.
The Illini haven't been particularly great at the United Center recently -- a place where they won nine regular season games in a row between 1999 and 2006. Since then, Illinois has been 4-5 in the last nine regular season games there. And they suffered a scare against UIC (a terrible team) last year. BYU could scare them too, but now that Illinois is improving defensively and starting to find a rhythm, they should win that game.
Lastly, you have the Braggin' Rights game. Although, beating Mizzou hasn't exactly been something to brag about recently. The Tigers had 19 combined wins in the two previous seasons. Insert the same story this season. Missouri (4-3) is not a good team. They came very close to knocking off Xavier early in the season. But they've lost to Davidson and North Carolina Central since then. Statistically, they are a very bad offensive squad.
John Groce is 3-1 in the Braggin' Rights game with a three-game winning streak. Those last three wins, including the two years when Missouri has been terrible, have been by nine points combined. With that in mind, Illinois shouldn't come in expecting to walk all over them. That's very possible, but rivalry games are usually trickier than they appear on paper.
Still, the Illini have a route to win their next four games and go into Big Ten play 10-3 with a lot to play for in conference battles.