No one could have predicted that when Illinois enters Saturday's neutral site contest with rival Missouri, the Fighting Illini will be a perfect 12-0 and ranked 10th in the national rankings. This coming from a recent graduate and lifelong fan of Illinois, who predicted the team would come in 9th or 10th in the nation's best and deepest conference.
Over the course of 12 games, my faith has not only been restored for this year's Illini team, but also for the future as long as John Groce is head coach. With that said, I believe this year's Illinois team is a contender in the Big Ten, as well as nationally, regardless of Saturday evening's outcome.
Missouri is no slouch, as it comes into the highly anticipated matchup with a 9-1 record and a national ranking of 12th. Moreover, after nine straight losses to Illinois starting in 2000, the Tigers have rattled off three consecutive wins in the series.
This year's senior class for Illinois will look to prevent Mizzou from beating them each and every time throughout their four years in college. The Illini start three seniors: Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, and Tyler Griffey, with redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand and fifth-year senior transfer Sam McLaurin being the first two players off Groce's bench.
Most recently, in December 2011, Missouri defeated Illinois 78-74 in the Busch Braggin' Rights battle. Illinois got double-double performances out of Paul and Meyers Leonard (now with the Portland Trail Blazers), but the real surprise and spark for U of I was Bertrand. In that game, Bertrand scored 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting from the field, which helped him finally break into the team's rotation.
Missouri had four double-digit scorers, but with the recent dismissal of Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey is the only remaining player of that bunch. Missouri does have Lawrence Bowers back (who missed last season), as well as a few transfers who Frank Haith has picked up.
I do not believe that Illinois needs to win on Saturday night to prove they are a contender. They do, however, need to match Mizzou's fast-paced style and keep the game close so as not to get embarrassed on national television. Regardless of that, I see the orange and blue pulling out another close win on Saturday.
This would give Illinois a 13-0 record, with only a matchup at the United Center against Auburn on the schedule before conference play begins. Interestingly enough, this year's seniors have also never won in their annual trip to Chicago to play in the Bulls' home arena. I see that changing this year as well.
Finally, when I say that Illinois is a contender, I believe they are a very good team. Many felt the same way a year ago at this time, though, before the team virtually fell apart by season's end. No, I'm not expecting them to win the Big Ten, or even finish in the top four in the conference.
Winning the Maui Invitational and beating Gonzaga on the road were excellent accomplishments. But there remains much to be accomplished in a conference that contains four top-10 squads and two additional ranked ones.
As long as the Illini continue to play the same hard-nosed defense and fast-paced style on offense, this year will not only be fun but successful, regardless of fan expectations at this point.