USA Today // Mike Dinovo

Piper: Illini sitting where they need to be

Illinois is far from earning a tourney berth, but they're closing out nonconference play just as they've needed to.

The Illini hung on tight on Saturday night to secure a 75-73 victory over BYU at the United Center, and extend their winning streak to five games.

The crowd was sparse. Illinois' second-half execution was spotty. A 16-point lead in the first half didn't last. But ultimately, the Illini got out with the win they needed.

Tracy Abrams (15 points) stepped up to make big plays, including a steal and finish to put Illinois up five with 21 seconds left. Maverick Morgan was huge with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Michael Finke combined to hit six threes.

The Illini had five players in double figures, and they got 28 points off the bench. It was a team effort, and they played some of their best basketball of the season during a first-half run.

Bottom line: John Groce's team did what they needed to do. Win and get ready for a Mizzou team that just lost to Eastern Illinois. And overall, they've had a great response since losing three straight games during Thanksgiving week.

And yet, the critics are still out in bunches. This team has things to fix. They have some flaws. But that's where a lot of teams are at right now.

Disgruntled fans have pointed out that Illinois hasn't beaten anybody. Well, they have a top-25 strength of schedule right now with a pair of top-50 RPI wins against VCU and N.C. State.

Big Ten RPI

Team RPI Record Top-100 RPI wins
Minnesota 10 11-1 3
Maryland 25 10-1 3
Purdue 27 9-2 2
Northwestern 35 9-2 3
Illinois 46 9-3 2
Wisconsin 53 10-2 2
Indiana 69 8-2 2
Michigan State 81 7-5 1
Michigan 85 9-3 2
Ohio State 88 8-3 1

Media looking for a punching angle predicatively harped on Illinois' inability to draw a large contingent at the United Center. Some did so even after the Illini won the game. 

It's true that not many fans showed up. It's also true that the weather was far from ideal. The band and cheerleaders couldn't make it up from Champaign. The team was supposed to go back home on Saturday night but stayed because of the weather.

Dayton brought the most fans, but what did they leave with? Archie Miller's wife's best Twitter impersonation of Ayesha Curry? Yeah, it's important to put people in the seats. But having your team show up and win the game is all that really matters. The Illini did that, and they shouldn't think twice about anything otherwise.

You can reminisce on old times all you want. Sixteen years ago, the UC was packed for Illinois' top-10 battle with Arizona. The early 2000s have been dead and gone for a while now. That didn't just happen.

So since a game against BYU -- which sported a future NBA big man and a pretty solid opponent -- didn't break the box office, we should vigorously state that this is how far the program has fallen? That this is another incrimination on an evaluation and a season that is clearly very much alive? Take that garbage to the curb.

The Illini should walk away from the Braggin' Rights game at 10-3 with a six-game winning streak. No one is going to give Illinois one of their cookies for Santa for beating Missouri (5-5) -- and that's fine.

It's also fine that Illinois has not yet earned themselves a tournament berth, as bad as the Orange and Blue faithful want its shipping to be 'guaranteed by Christmas'. Maybe some people forgot how this works.

The Illini will stand on solid ground heading into conference play at 10-3. VCU is going to win quite a few games and contend for an NCAA tournament bid. N.C. State is going to see their talented youth hit their stride, and they could beat some good teams in the ACC. BYU will be the best team in the West Coast Conference not named Gonzaga or St. Mary's.

And here's the point: The nonconference slate will not crown or collapse Illinois' tourney hopes. And it was never going to. That's why you play in one of the best conferences in the country. You want quality wins? They are there for the taking.

It's easy to understand the impatience of the Illini fan base. After the holidays, you will start to get more pieces to your answer. Opening up Big Ten play with @Maryland, Ohio State, @Indiana, Michigan, Maryland, @Purdue and @Michigan will do that for you.

Rushing to judgement this early would be licking the frozen flag pole. Don't do it. I triple dog dare you.


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