Those of you that switched off of the Illinois-Northwestern game on Thursday night, don't feel bad admitting to the fact. I almost did too, but for some reason, I stayed with it and saw perhaps the greatest Illini comeback since "The Comeback", which of course was the Illinois-Arizona game back on March 26, 2005 that sent the Illini to their first Final Four since 1989. Sure, the game against Northwestern didn't have near the implications that the Arizona game did, but there are still some pretty curious coincidences associated with the two games. First of all, they both took place in the Chicagoland area. The game against Arizona was at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, while Northwestern's game was at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, a burb on the north side of the city. To further dive into the similarities of the two games, ironically they both involved teams that have Wildcats as their mascots. Coincidence? Definitely. In both games, the Illini had to claw (no pun intended) their way back from double digit deficits, and did so in the waning minutes of regulation. The only glaring difference between the two games was that the Arizona game went overtime, and the Illini prevailed 90-89 to advance to St. Louis. In the game against Northwestern, no extra period was needed, as the Illini won 60-59. Another glaring difference was the personnel involved in the comeback. In 2005, the Illini boasted a starting five that all saw time in the NBA at one point or another (Dee Brown,. Deron Williams, Roger Powell, Luther Head, and James Augustine). The 2009 version is not nearly as glamorous (Trent Meacham, Demetri McCamey, Chester Frazier, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale), but proved to be equally effective. The win on Thursday night exemplifies one thing about this year's Illini team; they somehow find a way to win when they need to. The road in the Big Ten has not been kind to Bruce Weber and his team this season, as they have looked bad at times, and downright pitiful in other instances. Thursday night's game fit into the pitiful category for nearly 35 minutes, as the Illini forgot free throw technique, missing 10 out of 12 attempts on the night. Shooting was equally bad, and until the 5 minute mark of the second half, was really struggling from all points on the floor. Unlike 2005, the current Illini squad was not top-ranked, but they are in the Top 20, and with a win over Indiana on Sunday (12:00 noon, CST, CBS), figure to move up in the rankings once again. The Illini captured win number 20 against Northwesterm against 5 defeats, and have stayed within shouting distance of first place Michigan State at 8-4 in the conference standings. As I've stated before, it's been that kind of a season in the Big Ten Conference, with any team capable of knocking someone off every game. I feel bad for Northwestern, because this is a game that they should have won, and the loss may in fact destroy their chances of making the field of 65 teams for the first time in school history. Coach Bill Carmody has the Wildcats playing really well, and they are no longer a team that you overlook when they pop up on the schedule. Barring a late season collapse, they look like a strong candidate for the NIT, and who knows, with a little luck and a few more wins, could make things interesting in the Big Ten Tournament. I just hope that Illinois doesn't have to face them early in Indianapolis, because on a neutral court, all bets are off.
The level of play in the Big Ten has been intense this season, but so have the flagrant fouls and cheap shots. Already this season, there have been two players from Michigan suspended (Mannie Harris and Zach Novak), one from Indiana (Devan Dumas), and probably should have been one more, in Wisconsin's Joe Krabbenhoft for his outlandish pick on Purdue's Lewis Jackson. (Lew Jack missed the next game as a result.) Kudos to the respective coaches of these teams for stepping up and taking matters into consideration, but one tends to wonder how much is enough? The Big Ten has always been known as a physical league, with past bruisers such as Brian Cardinal, Lucas Johnson, and Brian Butch, just to name a few. But one of these times, someone is going to get seriously hurt, and then when the league doesn't step in to curtail this activity, it will give others the idea to do something similar. But as we get down to the stretch run for conference supremacy, a good number of teams still have a legitimate shot at the title. It would be tragic to see a team's hopes dashed by a careless and unnecessary play, taking one of their players out of commission. But, that's for the league to decide.