Illinois probably shouldn't be an underdog anymore
Believe it or not, Illinois went into Saturday’s game at Indiana as a slight underdog. Sportsbooks pegged the Hoosiers as a 1.5-point favorite, and for the first half it appeared that Vegas once again knew what it was doing.
In the ensuing 20 minutes of basketball, the bookies were shown that sleeping on the Fighting Illini is a terrible mistake.
The Big Ten is very crowded at the top, but even with that being the case there’s no mistaking it. Illinois is the class of the conference right now. The second half of the Illini’s 74-57 win at IU was a clinic.
If you’re betting against Brad Underwood’s team, don’t plan on getting your money back.
Illinois is Big Ten’s most well-rounded team
When the Illini are at full strength, which has infrequently been the case this season, there isn’t a more well-balanced team in the Big Ten.
Purdue can score at will. Perhaps only Gonzaga is more of an offensive juggernaut nationally. But the Boilermakers can also be scored upon. They are eighth in the B1G in effective field goal percentage defensively.
Michigan State can hound you defensively, but the Spartans are far too careless with the basketball. MSU’s offense has the highest turnover rate in the Big Ten, and among the worst in the country.
Wisconsin is the most balanced team in the race outside of Illinois. But the Badgers can’t hit 3-pointers with any regularity — they’re 266th in the country from beyond the arc. That trait reared its head in this week’s loss at Illinois. Wisconsin was a woeful 3 of 24 from 3-point range.
None of those fellow contenders can do as many things as well as the Illini can.
Nationally, Illinois is rated 17th in offensive efficiency and 21st in defensive efficiency by the numbers crunched at KenPom.com.
There are only 3 other ranked teams who have that type of balance. All of them are in the Top 10 — No. 6 Houston (11th offense, 10th defense), No. 9 Duke (16th offense, 15th defense) and No. 1 Auburn (13th offense, 12th defense).
So even though Illinois lingers at 18th in the poll, it is playing in a way that you would expect of a Final Four contender.
Saturday’s second-half demolition of Indiana was a reflection of that balance, and a demonstration in why this team is so hard to beat.
Kofi is great, and so are his teammates
Kofi Cockburn is absolutely among the frontrunners for this year’s Wooden Award. And Mike Woodson’s defense had him bottled up for 20 minutes, limiting the Illinois big man to 5 points on 2-for-7 shooting from the field.
Doing that for the full 40 is darn near impossible, though, so there was an inevitability to his eventual 17 points and 8 rebounds.
The Hoosiers also removed Andre Curbelo from the equation. Illinois’ super spark from the bench only had 3 points in 12 minutes.
But at no point in time did Indiana have an answer for Illinois point guard Trent Frazier. Frazier was operating at a Dee Brown level Saturday, missing just 3 shots on his way to a game-high 23 points.
When Cockburn and Curbelo missed time due to their respective concussions, Frazier kept Illinois humming. And even with them back in the lineup, his value to the team has not dissipated. Frazier is the embodiment of what makes Illinois so good on both ends of the floor.
Purdue still looms as a tall test
Contrary to this column’s headline, Illinois will be an underdog again this season. Indeed, that will be the case in its very next game.
The Illini complete their Indiana two-step with a trip to Purdue on Tuesday. The Boilers, of course, have already knocked off Illinois at State Farm Center. They’ll clearly be favored to do so again at Mackey Arena.
No team in the B1G represents a tougher matchup for the Illini than Purdue. While the other 12 teams in the league don’t have a player who can match Cockburn’s physicality inside, the Boilermakers have 2 of them.
7-foot-4 Zach Edey is the rare player who can make Cockburn look up, and 6-10 bruiser Trevion Williams is the rare guy who can probably beat Cockburn in the weight room. Throw in guard Jaden Ivey as an antidote for Frazier, and Purdue has the perfect recipe for taking down the Illini.
If Illinois can steal a win at Mackey, it will be in complete control of the Big Ten the rest of the way. And a loss would hardly be debilitating, but it would give Purdue the tiebreaker for the Big Ten title. Given how embittered Illini fans are over last year’s championship being awarded to Michigan, you know Illinois wants to avoid any scenario but being alone in first place.
And if the Illini do beat Purdue, you can bet it will be their last time as an underdog for quite awhile.