CHAMPAIGN - Derek Piper admitted to me about 30 minutes prior to Sunday's tipoff that he wasn't very confident in his preview-story prediction of Illinois over Ohio State. Several Illini fans enraged over a blowout loss at Maryland in the Big Ten opener probably questioned his sanity in picking Illinois over the more athletic Buckeyes.
As a pregame ritual, I always put a placeholder score in my Rapid Recap. I also predicted an Illinois win (73-67, if you must know). Like Piper, I had little confidence in my pick. After all, this Illinois team -- which has defeated VCU by 18 points and NC State by 14 points, but also lost to Winthrop in overtime, to West Virginia by 32 points and to Maryland by 25 points -- is extremely inconsistent.
But if the first week of Big Ten play showed us anything, it's that this could be one of the most competitive and most unpredictable Big Ten seasons of recent memory.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1742305-rapid-recap-illinois... Nebraska, which went 6-6 during a brutal nonconference schedule, just went into Maryland and Indiana and won in two of the toughest venues in the Big Ten. A young Iowa squad knocked off likely NCAA Tournament team Michigan at home in overtime. Minnesota, which was expected to be one of the Big Ten's worst teams again, followed a strong nonconference showing with a tough road win at Purdue. Meanwhile, Northwestern is one of the stories of the conference after its strongest nonconference performances (three top-80 KenPom wins).
"It certainly looks that way early that there is going to be a lot of parity," Illinois coach John Groce said after the Illini's 75-70 win over Ohio State on Sunday. "I do think it's one of those deals where you look at the previous game or the game ahead, which makes it harder on you guys (in the media) because you guys are supposed to predict and prognosticate. Good luck with that one! If you think how it looked three or four days ago, 'Well, that must mean blank in four days,' well it could go a total 180 on you. You better play the game that's in front of you. You better be ready to play. You better be ready to honor the process every day because I think it's a league, and obviously the early games are showing that, where anyone can win and anyone can get beat if you don't play well. It certainly makes it challenging but, at the same time, fun."
The muddled middle
In a league of few certainties, it feels safe to say that Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana are the likeliest of Big Ten title contenders -- but 12 or 13 wins may earn the Big Ten title this season (the last three conference title winners have won 15 conference games) -- and that Rutgers yet again is the Big Ten bottom feeder.
But KenPom.com currently projects 10 Big Ten teams, including Indiana, to finish between eight to 10 conference wins. The only outliers in the numbers projection are Wisconsin (13-5), Purdue (12-6), Penn State (6-12) and Rutgers (4-14).
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1742394-smith-talks-illini-o... KenPom currently has Illinois projected for an 18-13 overall record and 8-10 conference finish. But nine of those conference game results are projected to be within three points. The Illini also are No. 26 in the RPI, No. 9 on the strength of schedule and the last four in on Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology. The Illini are in the muddled midle of the Big Ten, but whether they float to the top of that list or sink to the bottom will determine their March fate.
What makes this Illinois team different than the previous three that missed the NCAA Tournament?
"What I think they got is experience," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "They have six seniors. We have one senior. It's so good to see (Tracy) Abrams out there and back after all he's been through. There's a lot of guys who have been in this program, an John has stuck to a system. They've got a pretty good feel for what they're doing."
How Illinois stacks up
So, yes, it's foolhardy to do so, but let's play a game. Who are you buying more, Illinois or ______?
- Michigan State: The Spartans (10-5, 2-0 Big Ten) are young and banged up but very talented. And always side with Tom Izzo. The win at Minnesota, without Miles Bridges, was insanely impressive. Spartans have a winning culture of always stepping up, and Alvin Ellis and Nick Ward are the latest to do so. Sparty always gets better as the season progresses and could be one of the more dangerous Big Ten teams in March ... again. EDGE: Michigan State.
- Nebraska: The Huskers' record (8-6, 2-0 Big Ten) is a little misleading. Tim Miles must be a masochist because his nonconference schedule was self-inflicted pain. A loss to Gardner-Webb was embarrassing, but their other five losses were to five top-31 KenPom teams: 12 UCLA, 31 Virginia Tech, 21 Clemson, 23 Creighton and 5 Kansas. It's painful to watch Illinois natives Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow play roles Illinois certainly needs, and Tai Webster is having a big season. Illinois is deeper and more experienced, but Nebraska may be more reliable. Yet, for now... EDGE: Illinois.
- Minnesota: The surprise of the Big Ten, the Gophers (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten) were expected to be near the bottom of the Big Ten, and coach Rich Pitino was on the hot seat. No more. But Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch has added a big presence in the post, and UW-Milwaukee transfer Akeem Springs has added some scoring off the bench. Freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry boosted the Gophers' size and athleticism, and holdovers Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason have taken big steps forward. EDGE: Minnesota.
- Northwestern: Though it might bother Illinois fans that the Wildcats (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) are the cutesy story of college basketball -- which will be fueled even more by all the Northwestern grads at ESPN -- there is substance behind it. The Wildcats had an impressive nonconference with wins over Texas, Dayton and Wake Forest. Their point guard (Bryant McIntosh) and wings (Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law) are NCAA Tournament caliber. But they have a hole in the post that should be exposed in the Big Ten. This certainly looks like a bubble team, which is why close losses to Butler (70-68) and Notre Dame (70-66) hurt. But I feel like I know what I'm going to get out of the Wildcats every night. Not so much with Illinois. EDGE: Northwestern.
- Maryland: The Terps (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten) are young, so they'll lose games they should win (like Sunday's late collapse to Nebraska). But they're also very talented with a special college point guard (Melo Trimble). This is an NCAA Tournament team that beat Illinois at home by 25. EDGE: Maryland.
- Iowa: The Hawkeyes (9-6, 1-1 Big ten) have one of the best scorers in the NCAA (Peter Jok) surrounded by a surprisingly good freshman class. They aren't an NCAA Tournament team an easy out, but the Illini have more experience and more depth. And Fran McCaffery's teams have a tendency to implode down the stretch. EDGE: Illinois
- Penn State: Like Miles at Nebraska, Pat Chambers is a good fit at Penn State (9-6, 1-1 Big Ten). He just needs more time. His teams always play tough, but he just needs more talent -- which is starting to accrue. Three in-state freshmen -- Lamarr Stevens, Tony Carr and Mike Watkins -- currently are averaging double digits, so PSU could be in the mix for a bubble spot soon, just probably not this season. EDGE: Illinois.
- Michigan: The Wolverines (10-4, 0-1 Big Ten) lack the elite talent of their Big Ten championship contending teams, but John Beilein is one of the best X's and O's coaches in the country and his players run his system extremely well. Beilein is 7-1 against Groce. EDGE: Michigan
- Ohio State: A program on a gradual decline, Ohio State has a lot of similarities to Illinois in its inconsistency. The Buckeyes (10-4, 0-1 Big Ten) can compete with anyone but can lose to anyone too. They are talented, led by mercurial point guard JaQuan Lyle, but lack depth. Illinois won their only matchup this season. EDGE: Illinois.
That would put Illinois about ninth in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota. But check back in a few weeks and Illinois could rise or fall a few spots -- and that could change again a few weeks later. The margin between most of the Big Ten's teams is that small.
Buckle up, Illini fans. With this team and this conference, it's foolhardy to extrapolate too much from one win or one loss this season. Just like the players and coaches, we media and fans probably should take a game-by-game approach to this season.