On Friday Illinois awakened atop the Big Ten standings as the group started conference play 2-0 throughout the 2013-14 season. Of course, that group tumbled down the Big Ten ladder with eight straight losses, finally causing the NCAA Tournament.
Only eight games into a 20-game Big Ten schedule at the deepest conference in college basketball, Illinois (14-5, 6-2 Big Ten) knows the race is far from over. But the Illini are happy to be setting rate, along with Michigan State (14-5, 6-2 Big Ten) at the early going.
“It’s amazing,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood stated. “These guys have worked their tails off. We have gotten a couple of nuggets. We have gotten a couple of road wins. We’ve instilled and produced a mindset of endurance. It is not going to be easier anywhere else we go. However, to be now at a spot where we’re now the hunted is something that we are excited about.”
When the Illini win Saturday’s match at Michigan (11-7, 2-5 Big Ten) — Illinois conquer the then-No. 5 Wolverines 71-62 on Dec. 11 in Champaign — they will take over sole possession in the Big Ten and also be the first Big Ten team to notch three conference road victories. The No. 21-ranked Illini have been ranked in the AP Top-25 Poll for successive weeks for the first time because 2013 and should be rated even higher next week after having a dominant win at Purdue.
Illinois and expectations adopted. So while some might be surprised that the Illini have risen so fast since an unsatisfactory nonconference slate in which it dropped games to Arizona, Miami and Missouri, the Illini never lost confidence.
“It’s good. We expected it,” said center Kofi Cockburn, the overwhelming favorite to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. “We knew once we got the chemistry together. Once we got a couple of matches and have the experience, we just kept making plays and worked on things and got better in scenarios. So today we are more prepared going into every game, along with the world is finally seeing it.”
This is a big change for Illinois, that has missed six straight NCAA Tournaments and currently is supposed to be at the NCAA Tournament. The Illini are off to their best eight-game start at the Big Ten since Dee Brown and James Augustine were seniors (2006). Throughout their current win series — the Illini’s longest in seven years — the Illini win because 2008 and first picked up their first wins at Wisconsin since 2010. On Saturday, they’ll look to end another streak. Illinois hasn’t won because of 2010, a skid the Crisler Center of Michigan.