Illinois is the only top-three seed remaining in the N.I.T. That's just more proof that the N.I.T. is won by teams who want to be there. The Illinois players have so many reasons to lose their focus. The head coach who recruited them (John Groce) was fired a week and a half ago. A new head coach (Brad Underwood) was introduced Monday and watched their win Monday over Boise State from the athletics director's suite. The seniors could be thinking about their pro careers. It's an awkward situation, and one that doesn't happen all that often in college basketball. Everyone else is ready to move on to the future. Yet, here they are, still playing basketball 11 days after Groce was dismissed and one win away from playing at Madison Square Garden.
"This team ain't done yet," interim coach Jamall Walker said Monday night.
Kudos to the seniors. Super-super-senior Tracy Abrams is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Malcolm Hill remains motivated -- and his career scoring total and NBA Draft stock both likely benefit. Maverick Morgan also is taking advantage of smaller defenders and producing well. But most of all, they're providing a great example.
"It's a lot going on, but we're not going to be back next year," Abrams said. "We got to focus on 2016-2017 team. I think Coach Walker is doing a great job with talking about that and finishing strong and keep fighting. That's the mindset that we have and that we will continue to have."
Added Hill: "I'm very grateful for what Coach Groce has done for me, and it sucks to see him go. But he told us, along with Coach Underwood, that's it's still the 2016-2017 season. Just make the most out of it. There's a lot of talk, you know especially since we got a new coach and stuff like that, so I think we've been doing a great job of thinking about the next game and giving it our all."
Kudos to the Illini staff. Most will be dismissed when this N.I.T. run ends. Walker, who is a hot commodity right now, has kept this team focused and playing well. Assistants Dustin Ford and Paris Parham continue to pour hours of preparation into the team despite no likely long-term personal benefit. The rest of the support staff, including director of basketball operations James Haring, interim assistant Darren Hertz and strength coach Adam Fletcher also have uncertain futures but continue to work hard.
Just an observation, but it's pretty amazing how quickly Walker has become the top storyline for this program. Sure, keeping him and his recruiting ties would make this transition far less of a "rebuild." Jeremiah Tilmon, who likely will stay with the Illini if Walker stays, would give Underwood the kind of long, athletic big he's never had as a head coach. Walker also would give Underwood's staff a familiarity with Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, who will make a college decision in the coming weeks, and future targets, including Belleville West's E.J. Liddell. It makes a ton of sense to keep him. But is Walker all of a sudden indispensable? No. Illinois and Underwood can survive and thrive without Walker as long as he hires other great recruiters with his $850,000 salary pool. But Walker, a good recruiter and good coach, certainly would give Underwood a head start.
Central Florida is red-hot. The Knights have won nine of 10 and are a 3.5-point favorite over Illinois tonight. And Johnny Dawkins is an N.I.T. monster, winning two N.I.T. titles at Stanford (2012 and 2015).
Of course, the real monster in the game is 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. He can hang on the rim without jumping. It's no surprise then that the Knights are No. 1 in the country in two-point percentage defense. Fall is No. 15 in the country in block-shot percentage.
Favorite 7-foot-6 or taller center? The 90s was full of them. Yao Ming (played in the 2000s) was by far the best, of course. But I'll take Gheorghe Muresan over Shawn Bradley and Manute Bol. The former Bullets star still terrifies me.
A trip to Madison Square Garden would be a fun end to a crazy season. And the Illini are talented enough to win this dang thing. Might as well.