When the University of Illinois men's basketball team put up a mere 33 points in a recent home loss to Penn State, people took notice. Highlights from the game were broadcast on SportsCenter all throughout the following day, the anchors showing no mercy as they poked fun at the Illini's futility.
Despite being ranked in the Top 25 for several weeks running, contending for a top-three conference finish, and sweeping preseason Big Ten favorite Purdue, the Illini found themselves finally receiving national recognition for their worst performance of the year.
Certainly not the type of attention a team craves just weeks before Selection Sunday.
Illinois bounced back from the Penn State fiasco later in the week by defeating Ohio State on the road in a nail-biter, putting up 70 points. The Illini looked like a completely different team, shooting an impressive 58 percent from the field, up considerably from the 30 percent output from the Penn State game.
So which Illinois team will show up once the NCAA Tournament commences? Despite posting a 22-6 record and currently holding the No. 20 spot in the rankings, the Fighting Illini have shown that they can implode at a moment's notice. One only needs to reflect on the Illini's 59-36 defeat at Minnesota earlier the season to be reminded of this.
In addition to relying on sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale to shoulder most of the scoring load, Illinois must look to senior leaders Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham to ensure that such a collapse does not occur.
Frazier has proved himself this season to be one of the Big Ten's top on-the-ball defenders, and even recently added a high-arching three-point shot to his limited offensive arsenal.
Although he lacks the talent of some of the Illini's underclassmen, Frazier is the heart and soul of the Illinois squad. During the Illini's aforementioned game at Ohio State, Frazier, averaging only 5.9 points per game, sank two tough three-pointers in the game's waning moments, sealing a crucial victory for his team.
Meacham, known throughout the Big Ten as a deadly three-point shooter but not much else, has also stepped up in key spots. Having successfully defended his starting role and place in the rotation despite the arrival of highly-touted Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, Meacham has shown the mettle that the Illini will need to succeed in March.
Perhaps the best example of this was in Illinois' recent game at Northwestern, which saw them trailing by 14 points with four minutes remaining. Meacham put the team on his back, scoring 12 of his 15 points in the final five minutes, as the Illini pulled out a tremendous comeback victory.
Outside of senior leadership, Illinois will need to keep up its focus on team defense in order to have a chance at an NCAA Tournament run. The top defensive team in the Big Ten, the Illini thrive when they force their opponents to play at their desired tempo, often throwing off more high-scoring teams.
As Illinois gears up for the final stretch of the season, highlighted by a home matchup against ninth-ranked Michigan State, the team will undoubtedly be looking to establish a bit of consistency before March Madness begins. The Big Ten Tournament should also provide some clarity as to whether the Illini are currently capable of rattling off consecutive victories.
Frazier, Meacham, and McCamey, all major contributors from last year's team, which finished 10th in the Big Ten yet made it all the way to the title game during the conference tournament, certainly have the experience to lead the Illini on a run.
If the Illini are able to forget the offensive woes that have plagued them on several occasions this season, a strong push in the Big Ten Tournament should provide the team with valuable momentum leading into the NCAA Tournament.
And based on how unstable the Top 25 has been this year, if the Illini's young scorers continue to contribute as the team maintains its defensive prowess, this is without question a squad that could make some noise when March Madness rolls around.
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