Well, 1 out of 3 on my predictions from yesterday would be a good baseball batting average. Anyway, Illinois is playing Michigan State for the third time this season. I don’t like the prospect of playing the Spartans again. Regardless of what we’ve seen from Michigan State so far this season, I’ve always felt that Tom Izzo is able to flip a switch on his teams in the postseason better than anyone else in college basketball today. Plenty of people penciled in the Spartans as a victim of the 12-seed over 5-seed upset last year, yet they ended up going to Izzo’s fourth Final Four. This team still has a plethora of talent with the skills to make a deep tourney run.
That said, Bruce Weber has shown that he can get the most of his team, as well. He mentioned yesterday that if anyone had told him at the beginning of the year that Illinois would be 25-5 at this point, he would have taken that in a heartbeat. I think most rational Illini fans would have been pretty ecstatic with that, too. The bottom line for us is that we’re going to go as far as our perimeter shooters are going to take us. James Augustine and Shaun Pruitt have been doing a great job inside over the second half of the Big Ten season to give us a great base of points. The difference between the Illini making deep runs or early exits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tourneys, however, will be whether Dee Brown, Rich McBride, and Jamar Smith are able to drain shots from the outside. If they continue to shoot they way they have been over the last 3 games, we are as good as any team in the country. Having all three of those guys going cold, though, would be cause for an early-round exit.
My belief is that not winning the Big Ten regular season title has left a bad taste in the mouths of the Illini and will be motivated to prove that they’re truly the best team in the conference. This parallels the feeling in 2003 where Illinois ran the table in the Big Ten Tournament after losing out on the regular season championship to Wisconsin. I truly believe we’re going to end up winning the necessary 3 games in a row this weekend.
The team to watch out for on the other side of the bracket is Indiana. The Hoosiers have a virtual home court advantage in Indianapolis and are on a 4-game winning streak. Look for them to beat Wisconsin tonight, upset Ohio State tomorrow, and roll into a final with Illinois on Sunday. The Hoosier magic is going to end there against the Illini, though. Illinois ultimately has the firepower and momentum to win its third Big Ten Tournament title.
Have a great weekend and GO ILLINI!