Yes, it's here, and enjoy the ride! I'm talking about March Madness, that annual event that has hoops junkies of all shapes and sizes keeping a close eye on basketball games. This year it is a little different, with the Fighting Illini men's team not having a very good season, and their postseason action takes on a much different role this year than in years past. For what seems like forever, the Illini would be entering the month of March trying to pad their tournament resume with a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament. This year, it is pure survival, as the Illini will need to run the table to be eligible for the 'Dance. This means 4 wins in 4 days, a feat that is nearly as impossible as Shaun Pruitt going 10-10 from the free throw line in a close game near the end of regulation. As in past years, the parity is getting narrower, so that teams that did not hold a prayer in the past can play with the big boys and pull the inevitable upset. The Big Ten is somewhat down this year, probably only looking at 4, or at best 5 teams in the tournament this year. The Illini do not figure to be one of them, as they enter the final week of the regular season at 12-17 overall and 4-12 in conference play. Illinois did get a nice win at Iowa on Saturday, 58-47, as Pruitt led the Illini in scoring with 18 points. Their last two road wins, the other one coming at Minnesota in February, have occurred when the young players have been in the game the majority of the time. With Brian Randle still nursing the shoulder injury and Pruitt not playing nearly as much as earlier in the season, the underclassmen have been getting a chance to show what they can do. One player in particular that has made some positive strides has been freshman Mike Davis. Davis has seen more playing time as of late, and is making the most of it. With Bill Cole out for the remainder of the year with an injury, as well as Richard Semrau, Davis has been called upon to shoulder the load. This can do nothing but help him, especially since the Illini really only lose Pruitt and Randle after this season. With only Stan Simpson entering the picture next year, expect to see more of Davis and hopefully in a leadership role as well.
The Illini finish up the regular season at the Assembly Hall against Michigan State (8:00 pm Thursday, ESPN2) and Minnesota (12:00 noon Saturday, Big Ten Network). This has been a strange season all around, with the Illini just 5-7 in front of the home fans. The Illini have a chance to even up their home record if they can get these last two games at home, and that would give them some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament, which starts next week at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. More will be known by this weekend, when the seeds and brackets are finalized for the tournament. Whatever the outcome, the Illini need a serious run to make the field of 65 this year.
Jolette Law's Fighting Illini women's basketball team has completed their regular season, and are currently in the midst of their Big Ten Tournament, also being played at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Illini will enter play as the #9 seed in the tourney, coming in with an overall record of 16-13 overall and finishing 8-10 in Big Ten play. They will play the #8 seed Wisconsin Badgers, and if the Illini are lucky enough to get past the Badgers, will go up against top-seeded Ohio State on Friday evening. The Illini defeated the Buckeyes 68-64 back on January 31 at the Assembly Hall in Champaign. The Illini have lost several games at the very end, so their record is not indicative of how they have played. Jenna Smith was named to the first team All-Big Ten, while Lori Bjork garnered third team honors.