Illinois basketball: How much should we believe in the Fighting Illini?
Illinois is setting the standard in the B1G right now.
Despite losing some key pieces from last year’s B1G Tournament championship team — and some might argue the co-regular season champions — Brad Underwood’s Illini are sitting atop the conference standings heading into the most important stretch of the season.
With 8 games left on the schedule — 3 against ranked opponents — the Illini have their hands full heading into the final month of the regular season. Illinois has already showed its a legitimate B1G contender, but can it also compete for a spot in the Final Four and potentially a national championship?
Illinois’ success to this point of the season begins and ends with Kofi Cockburn. Averaging 21.8 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting better than 60% from the floor puts the big man in the running for the National Player of the Year conversation. Perhaps his most impressive performance of the season came in one of the biggest games of the year, scoring 37 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in an 80-67 win over Wisconsin, which bumped the Illini into first place in the B1G.
Cockburn has proven to be unstoppable when he’s on the floor. Even in a win over Indiana, the Hoosiers did an excellent job of containing the 7-footer, but he still walked away with a 17-point, 8-rebound day in a blowout victory.
The Fighting Illini would be a tough out with Cockburn on the floor alone. What makes Underwood’s squad sitting atop the B1G standings, though, is the kind of offensive production they can get on any given night from guys like Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison.
Plummer has emerged as the most consistent, averaging better than 15 points per contest, but the other three have stepped up at times throughout the year. Curbelo scored 20 in a double-overtime loss to Purdue. Frazier dropped 29 in a 10-point victory over Nebraska and 23 in the win over Indiana. Grandison scored 21 in a road win over Iowa.
Illinois has shooters all over the floor, knocking down the 3-ball at a 37% clip. Pair that with the most dominant big man in the game, and it’s a recipe for success.
On the defensive end, Cockburn’s mere presence on the interior has shown to be intimidating to opponents. When he’s not blocking shots, he’s done an excellent job altering them. On the perimeter, Frazier is locking down some of the B1G’s top guards. His performance on that end of the floor warranted a rant from Underwood, who blasted voters of the Defensive Player of the Year honor for not including the senior guard.
What hasn’t worked?
Very little. Of Illinois’ 5 losses this season, Cockburn was absent from 2 and he fouled out of that two-overtime thriller against Purdue. All that leaves is an inexplicable 20-point loss to Cincinnati early in the season and a 4-point defeat at the hands of Arizona, which is currently ranked No. 4 nationally.
There is one area of concern for the Fighting Illini, though. Turnovers.
As good as Illinois has been defensively this season, it’s only forcing 10.6 turnovers per game this season. That ranks 321st nationally. Pair that with the fact that the Illini are coughing up the ball nearly 13 times per contest and it could be an issue.
Because Illinois’ shot defense is so good — it ranks 30th nationally at 39.6% — the turnover situation hasn’t been a major issue. But when the Illini get into games against teams with multiple shooters, not getting enough pressure on the basketball can be an issue, especially in the final month of the season and heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Turning up the defensive pressure to create more turnovers would help this team’s B1G title push.
Looking at the month ahead
Illinois has already proven itself to be a B1G contender and potential Final Four team through the first 3 months of the season. Yet the Fighting Illini have a pretty tough road ahead to close out the 2021-22 season,
A heavyweight bout in West Lafayette against No. 3 Purdue is the first in a string of tough matchups. That matchup — a rematch of a mid-January showdown in Champaign the Boilermakers won 96-88 — could go a long way in determining the B1G champion.
If the Illini get a road win at Mackey Arena, they would have defeated every ranked team in the B1G at least once, with the exception of Ohio State. They have not yet faced the Buckeyes.
The Illini also travel to Rutgers — which has ranked wins over Purdue and No. 17 Michigan State — on Feb. 16 before a road trip to East Lansing on Feb. 19 and a home contest against No. 16 Ohio State on Feb. 24.
The Illini then close out the season with a road game against Michigan and back-to-back home contests in Champaign against Penn State and Iowa. To break it down even more, Illinois will play 3 opponents that are within 2 games of first place in the B1G standings. Only 3 teams — Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa — currently are below .500 in conference play.
Can Illinois continue to play consistently down this pivotal stretch? Or will the trouble of playing so many quality teams in a short period of time wear down Underwood’s team?
The good news is that Illinois has so many weapons that anyone is capable of stepping up on any given night. It doesn’t have to solely rely on Curbelo, Frazier, Grandison or Plummer to win games. As long as Cockburn is on the floor, the Illini are going to have a chance.
Entering the most important stretch of the season, Illinois is slotted as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi in his latest bracketology. That feels … low.
Yes, Illinois has 5 losses, but games against Marquette and Maryland should be tossed aside because Cockburn wasn’t available. That leaves losses to No. 4 Arizona, No. 3 Purdue and Cincinnati. Plus, this is a team that owns wins over No. 17 Michigan State and No. 11 Wisconsion.
Maybe there isn’t enough on the resumé to bump up Illinois much further right now. The good news? The Illini get their opportunities with 3 ranked opponents still on the schedule and the B1G Tournament ahead.
Illinois is skilled enough to win the B1G, but it’s not likely it will go the remainder of the year without acquiring another loss (or two or three) before the year concludes. A realistic expectation for the Illini is to finish at 16-4, which might still be good enough to win a regular season conference title. If they finish 17-3 or better in league play, this team will probably be flirting with a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Because of the early losses, they’re probably out of contention for a No. 1 seed unless they win out.
No. 1 seed or not, Illinois has all the pieces necessary to make a Final Four run at the end of the year. The Illini have the ultimate big man in Cockburn and he’s surrounded by scorers in Frazier, Curbelo, Plummer and Grandison. The shot defense has been outstanding in a league full of shooters.
The biggest concern? The Illini’s shooters can be streaky. If there’s ever a night when they’re not hitting behind the arc, they’re going to have rely on Cockburn to win the game.