The 12th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini have struggled this pre-conference season in blowing out/closing out teams that are supposedly very inferior to them. When you’re a top 15 ranked team, with very solid signature wins over #13 Gonzaga and #18 Butler, you should handle the mid-major and low-major scrubs very easily.
But the Illini don’t do that. They let bad teams hang around. After leading a 5-6 Auburn team by 11 at the United Center, they found themselves up by just one within four minutes to play at the home of the Chicago Bulls. This Auburn team is HORRIBLE. They lost to DePaul, Winthrop at home and Murray St by 20. This never should have been close. But it’s a pattern that’s been continuous all non-conference season.
They needed OT and a last second buzzer beater to defeat a very mediocre 6-5 Hawaii team. Illinois beat Gardner-Webb on a Tyler Griffey trey in the closing seconds. Western Carolina was a struggle until the very end. Same with Norfolk State. They failed to blow out Georgia Tech or Eastern Kentucky.
But this was a key win. The Illini entered the game having lost three in a row and five of six at the United Center, their supposed home away from home. So this was getting a monkey off the back. And they are winning. And winning much more than expected. This team was picked to finish ninth or tenth in the league in the preseason by many pundits. And here they are with resume victories and a high national ranking heading into Big Ten play. And winning ugly is a lot better than losing to inferior teams. Just ask Purdue, who have suffered such defeats and coincidentally host Illinois January 2nd. So far the Illini inability to finish off the less talented squads hasn’t hurt them. Their lone loss is to #7 Missouri. But it may hurt them in conference play.
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, a Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Chicago Tribune.com, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports
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