Clem Haskins couldn't do it. Dan Monson couldn't do it. So far, in two tries,Tubby Smith hasn't been able to accomplish it either. Of course, I'm talking about the Illini's dominance over Minnesota in men's basketball. The Illini have not lost to the Golden Gophers since the 1998-99 season, ironically the last season that they have been this low in the Big Ten standings. Nobody can explain the dominance that the Illini have enjoyed over Minnesota, but with the victory on Saturday, the streak has reached 19 games, the longest such streak of any team in the Big Ten Conference. It was Senior Day against the Gophers this time around, and the Illini once again prevailed, downing their visitors from Minnesota 67-58. Trent Meacham had the hot hand for the Illini, scoring a game high 21 points, while fellow junior Calvin Brock played a good game as well, scoring 17 points. This has been a season of frustration all around for the Illini, and once again, they led at halftime 27-26. However, this time, the Illini persevered down the stretch, and built up enough of a lead that even their atrocious free throw shooting couldn't throw that one away. On the afternoon, the Illini made 21 of 32 free throw attempts, which is a little better than their season average of 61%. It was nice to see the seniors go out with a win, especially the way this season has gone. Brian Randle's career has been one that has been injury-marred, and Shaun Pruitt has been plagued with attitude problems, as well as free throw issues that have cost the Illini a couple of games. He alluded to that effect after the game, addressing the crowd and apologizing for not being able to connect on three free throw sequences that could have won the game against Indiana. The other senior recognized on Saturday, Chris Hicks, has been a favorite of the Orange Krush, and saw a couple minutes of action, draining a long three-pointer as time expired. Hicks, whose attitude exceeds most that have donned the orange and blue over the years, probably will never play beyond the college level, but his contribution to the program the past 4 years has been a welcome addition.
So what's next for the Illini? The Big Ten Tournament begins on Thursday, and the Illini will be the #10 seed, playing Penn State at approximately 1:30 pm central time. The Illini have played Penn State twice this season, and lost to them both times. It is rather difficult to defeat a team three times in a season, and that is what the Illini are hoping for when they take the court against the Nittany Lions on Thursday. The rest of the matchups look like this: In the first game, #8 seed Iowa takes on #9 Michigan, with the winner of that game getting #1 Wisconsin on Friday. #4 seed Michigan State takes on #5 seed Ohio State in the second game on Friday, and the winner of the Illinois-Penn State game will face #2 seed Purdue in the first game on Friday night. #6 seed Minnesota will face #11 seed Northwestern in the final game on Thursday, with the winner of that game facing the #3 seed Indiana Hoosiers in the nightcap on Friday. Nobody knows what will happen in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, but this much is clear; the Illini will need to win 4 games in as many days if they want to be dancing a week from now on Selection Sunday.
When Jolette Law was hired as Fighting Illini women's basketball coach, she promised that one day they would be playing for national championships instead of Big Ten championships. In her first season at the helm, she has endured heartbreak after agonizing heartbreak, losing several games in the last minute of play. The Illini entered the tournament at 16-13 and the #9 seed, first taking on Wisconsin. They defeated the #8 seeded Badgers, and that win secured them a date with top-seeded Ohio State on Friday. Cinderella was dancing that night, as the Illini upended the Buckeyes to gain a spot in the semi-finals against the #5 seeded Michigan State Spartans. The Illini were able to get past the Spartans as well, to set up a championship showdown against the #3 seeded Purdue Boilermakers. The game went back and forth, with each team taking sizable leads, and, as fitting of a title game, came down to the last second. Unfortunately, for the Illini, the glass slipper finally didn't fit, and the Boilermakers put back a missed shot at the buzzer to defeat the Illini 58-56, and send the orange and blue clad fans that made the trip east returning home disappointed. But, you have to hand it to the ladies. They gave Illini Nation something exciting to cheer about for 4 days, and if Law keeps doing this, it could get very exciting in the near future for the women. The NCAA berth probably went by the wayside with the loss, but nevertheless, they proved that they are worthy and with a nucleus of players returning next season, will challenge for the regular season title ad hopefully, a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in 2009.
So, let the madness begin! Who do you think will be cutting the nets down in Indy next weekend? What are the prospects for the Big Ten in the big dance? Where, if anywhere, are the Illini headed in the postseason? I welcome your comments and suggestions!