Illini Basketball: Finally Bonafide League Title Contenders Again


bruce weber

“For one brief shining moment, there was Camelot” for Illini basketball fans…kind of. From 2002-06, Illinois let the entire nation in wins. From 2001-06, the program finished in the top two in the Big Ten every single season.

Up until this month, this golden era of sorts felt an ancient history, as they haven’t finished higher than fourth since then. The Illini basketball program has actually finished 7th or lower nine times since the halcyon days of Dee Brown, Bruce Weber and company. Recapping that period is relevant now though as Illinois currently sits tied with Michigan State atop the league standings at 8-3.

dee brown

Yes, Illinois, who toiled in mediocrity (and often times much worse) for all of the 2010s were in first place, by their lonesome on Super Bowl Sunday/Groundhog Day 2020. If it feels weird to be talking about Illini basketball as conference title contenders that’s because it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to legitimately have this conversation.

Late season Illini basketball is meaningful again and the next stretch of schedule will be overflowing with challenges. Had Rutgers not fallen out of the AP top 25, the next four (instead of three of the next four) would have been against currently ranked teams.

illini basketball

Next they’ll take on third place Maryland (7-3), who inexplicably surged seven spots in the poll to #9 this week. Illinois has all week to prepare for a Friday night marquee matchup, and a chance to get right the win they let slip through their hands on December 7.

Then, next Tuesday comes another big one, as #16 Michigan State comes to town. The run in also includes two more games against ranked teams, at Penn State on February 18 and home versus Iowa to close the regular season. When you look at the current Illini basketball postseason resume, you don’t see a ton of signature wins, but as we said last week, it will change.

They will face every other team that’s currently in the top six with them, and with it, the opportunity to win the program’s 18th regular season league title and first since 2005.  The resume builders are on the schedule now and as we’ve said, since 2019 flipped to 2020 the orange and blue have shown enough consistency now that you can feel pretty confident they’ll take care of business at home and rack up some resume wins.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC and Chicago on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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