Despite Purdue loss, Illinois looks like the team to beat in Big Ten
First, some nuance.
If Purdue and Illinois played a best-of-7 series, I’d take the Boilermakers. No other Big Ten team is better equipped to match up against the Illini.
That was made evident throughout Purdue’s 96-88 double-overtime win at State Farm Center in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee. Only the Boilers can completely neutralize Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, who lost his head against the tandem of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams.
Cockburn’s clear frustration manifested itself in a poor performance. He was held to 10 points — not even half his season average — 5 rebounds and fouled out.
Despite its best player being a non-factor, Illinois very nearly stayed unbeaten in Big Ten play.
Which brings me to my thesis: Though Purdue is better than Illinois in a head-to-head setting, that’s not how the Big Ten is won. It’s won by the team that’s best over the course of a 20-game conference schedule.
And in that context, the Fighting Illini are still the team to beat in the B1G despite picking up their first conference loss Monday afternoon.
Curbelo cause for enthusiasm
After watching Monday’s game, it is remarkable to realize Illinois made its way to 6-0 in league play without getting a single minute from guard Andre Curbelo.
Curbelo was absent for 11 games due to lingering effects from a concussion he suffered in Illinois’ preseason exhibition game. And those after-effects are frightening — he actually played in 4 games before needing to step away.
If the symptoms are completely behind him, the rest of the Big Ten is in trouble.
Curbelo looked more like a guy who was sitting out 11 minutes than 11 games in his return to the lineup. He gave the Illini 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists off the bench.
There were moments where a lack of on-court chemistry might have factored in — he had a couple of dribble-drives into the lane where it wasn’t clear what his intent was outside of dribbling in a circle — but his presence will lift an already good team to a level of greatness.
Illinois already pushed No. 3 Arizona to the limit in an 83-79 loss without Curbelo. It’s more than reasonable to think that result would have reversed with Curbelo on the floor. And that’s said with the belief that the Wildcats are every ounce worthy of their ranking.
It’s the Illini who pollsters are overlooking. There was some correction with Illinois moving up from 25th to 17th in this week’s AP poll, but of course the home loss to Purdue will inevitably send the Illini back in the wrong direction next week.
But don’t be deceived.
Other than a return trip to Purdue and visit to Michigan State, Illinois should be favored in every other game it plays this season.
There are some potential landmines along the way. Rutgers, a decidedly average team, plays like one of the Big Ten’s best on its home floor. Wisconsin is currently tied with the Illini atop the Big Ten standings, but fortunately, Illinois gets the lone meeting between the teams this season at State Farm Center.
But outside of Purdue, those teams are far less equipped to keep Cockburn from his typical 21 points and 12 boards. And if he and Curbelo are both clicking, the Illini have the best inside-outside combo in the conference.
The problem for Purdue
Purdue fans will obviously be displeased with the bucket of cold water I’m dumping on the Boilers after a tremendous road win. And I get it.
But the problem here isn’t Purdue’s talent or coaching. It’s the early hole the Boilermakers put themselves in by starting 1-2 in conference play.
This was an absolute must-win for Purdue if it wants to win a Big Ten title. With a loss, the Boilers would have been 3 games behind Illinois in the standings. Considering there may only be 3-4 losses left on Illinois’ schedule, it would have been nearly impossible to gain that ground back.
There’s also the matter of Purdue’s schedule, which looks more paved in potholes than the Illini’s.
Another road challenge awaits Thursday when the Boilers bus down to Bloomington. And yes, it may be hard for Purdue fans to take that sentence seriously when Matt Painter has won 9 straight against Indiana. But the Hoosiers have yet to lose at home, and Mike Woodson has them playing solid enough defense to potentially irritate Purdue’s powerful offense.
Even if Purdue pulls that one out, I suspect there will be a realization that Painter no longer has the benefit of facing Archie Miller or Tom Crean.
A week after that, the Boilers have to travel to Iowa in what figures to be an epic shootout with Keegan Murray and the Hawkeyes. That game could certainly go either way.
Near the end of the season, there’s yet another back-to-back stretch of tough road tests — at Michigan State on Feb. 26, and then at Wisconsin just 3 days later. The Badgers, of course, already handed Purdue a defeat at Mackey Arena.
So even though Purdue matches up very well with Illinois, the rest of the schedule is such tough sledding that the Illini have the edge.
What of Wisconsin and Michigan State?
Monday was a nice icebreaker for what should be a very good week of Big Ten basketball. And the most important game is on Friday night, for it will produce the third horse in the race for the conference title.
Despite what the standings currently read — and even one head-to-head outcome — Wisconsin and Michigan State feel like underdogs. (That fact bears out in the AP rankings, where Wisconsin is still 4 spots behind Purdue despite the head-to-head win.)
Both the Badgers and Spartans have 1 conference loss, and one of them is guaranteed to pick up another when they meet in Madison on Friday.
For Michigan State in particular, it looms large. The Spartans follow their Wisconsin trip with a visit to Illinois. Dropping both would result in a 3-game losing streak that will be difficult to overcome.
If the Badgers win, Wisconsin will clearly be in the Big Ten race for the long haul.
But as the league’s worst 3-point shooting team, it also seems likely the Badgers will run into some trouble away from Kohl Center. That means home games might be even more important for Wisconsin than most teams, because cold shooting is bound to result in a mind-boggling road loss somewhere down the line.
For that reason, a loss to Michigan State could be severely detrimental to Wisconsin.