Illinois has been the most enigmatic team in college basketball in the 2012-13 season. After an unbeaten start that included wins over Butler and Gonzaga, Illinois' first taste of defeat came against rival Missouri, though that wasn't much cause for concern.
The 2-7 Big Ten start that followed the loss to Mizzou was more than concerning, however, as the Illini fell from a top-10 team just weeks before to the 10th place team in the deep Big Ten Conference.
Adding a buzzer-beating win against top-ranked Indiana and getting revenge on the road against a Minnesota team that already had defeated the Illini has Illinois back in the field of 68 for the time being.
Can Illinois continue their recent success for the final seven league games heading into the Big Ten Tournament? Or will the Illini fade, the same way they did a year ago, and not hear their name called on Selection Sunday?
Anyone who disagrees with the fact, not opinion, that the Big Ten is the best conference the nation has to offer must not have watched any basketball last week. First, Michigan defeated Ohio State in overtime. Wisconsin beat Iowa at the Kohl Center in double overtime the following night.
Last Thursday, this Illinois team pulled off a huge upset in the most memorable basketball game I've ever attended, as Tyler Griffey's uncontested layup beat Tom Crean's Hoosiers. On Saturday, Ben Brust's half courted helped Wisocnsin knock off Michigan. Aside from Nebraska and Penn State, no loss can really be considered a bad loss with the remaining 10 B1G teams.
Illinois' two worst losses in league play came at Purdue, the Big Ten opener, and a 14-point loss at home to Northwestern. Fortunately for John Groce and company, revenge could be sweet if the Illini can knock off those teams in their next two contests.
Illinois ranks 302nd in the nation in assists per game at a mere 10.7 assists average. Just last month Illinois only tallied two assists in 40 minutes in a blowout loss at Wisconsin. Four seasons ago, behind the dual point guard tandem of Chester Frazier and Demetri McCamey, Illinois was one of the top assist teams in the land.
Only three members of this year's team average more than a measly 0.7 assists. Tracy Abrams leads the team with 3.4, followed by Brandon Paul with 2.8 assists and DJ Richardson at 1.7 assists per contest. Illinois' offense sometimes looks like an isolation offense, rather than a penetrate and pitch motion offense.
With so many long range shooters on the court together at one time, Abrams and Paul need to better use their driving ability to pitch out to open shooters like Richardson and Griffey.
When Illinois was winning often early on in the 2012-13 campaign, they were leading the nation in three-point shooting. It's no secret that when Illinois shoots well from deep they're tough to beat, but when they're missing the outside shots, anyone can knock them off.
The team's best offensive options are all guards who have no problem firing them up from downtown, especially Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson. Tracy Abrams hit a huge three over Elliott Eliason on Sunday, while Joseph Bertrand also won't shy away from an open look behind the arc.
Tyler Griffey seems to be back on track from three point land, after missing 20-some straight three-pointers over a multi-game stretch. Griffey's three-point shooting is his best asset, so his confidence shooting the rock truly is an x-factor for the orange and blue.
Even Sam McLaurin got in on the long range bombs Sunday, attempting and converting on his first three ball all year and later missing his second attempt. Myke Henry, a stretch four, also primarily plays along the perimeter.
Illinois' usual starting lineup consists of three seniors (one of which is a fifth-year) and two sophomores. Of the three bench players that see the floor every game, one is a senior, one a redshirt junior, and another sophomore.
The fact that five of the team's top seven players are seniors by grade should give this team a sense of urgency, as it'll be their last time to make a final impression on their careers at U of I. As freshmen, this group of seniors fell to Dayton in the NIT Quarterfinals.
As sophomores, Illinois made the Big Dance and beat UNLV before falling to Bill Self's KU Jayhawks. Last season should be fresh in the Illini's mind, following a late season meltdown that cost Bruce Weber his job.
The 2009 recruiting class of Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand was highly touted, but there's still plenty of work to be done. The way Illinois played the last two games make me think they've finally realized how little time is left in their collegiate careers.
Following Illinois' shocking win over IU, the Illini became the nation's only team to defeat four teams ranked in the top 15 at that time. Not only did Illinous beat Indiana when they were ranked No. 1, but the Hoosiers remained atop the national rankings even with the loss.
Illinois took care of Butler in the Maui Invitational back in November, and like Butler, beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Illinois won that game by 13 points, but what's even more impressive is the fact they won on the road. Gonzaga is currently ranked fifth, but received two votes in the AP Poll for the top ranking.
Illinois knocked off Ohio State in their first Big Ten win, as Thad Matta fell to former assistant coach John Groce. A win at Minnesota knocked the Gophers from the top 25. Opportunities to win more big games come at Michigan and Ohio State to end the Big Ten season.
Illinois has made it clear they can beat elite teams. Now can they find the consistency to win the games they're supposed to, become selected to the NCAA Tournament field, and make a run in March?