Wow. Simply wow. This has only happened 3 times in the 108 year history of Fighting Illini basketball, and I am proud to say that I witnessed the last two of them, and watched the third one on television. Of course, I am talking about the Illini knocking off the #1 team in the nation. The Illini shocked the nation by defeating the Indiana Hoosiers 74-72 on Thursday night at a raucous Assembly Hall in Champaign. This has been a roller coaster season for the Illini, and beating the nation's elite team, especially Indiana, makes this even more special. Before the game, the Illini were taking themselves out of any possible NCAA tournament talk, but given the fact that now they have beaten 4 top 10 teams, I don't see any possible way that you can leave them out of that discussion at the moment. Quality wins over Butler to win the Maui Invitational, Gonzaga in Spokane, and Ohio State and Indiana at the Assembly Hall look really good on their tournament resume, but losses at home to Northwestern and Minnesota, and on the road at Purdue, are the ones that really are hurting this team right now and are the main reason that they are not considered a lock for the "Big Dance". Make no mistake about it, Indiana is a very good team, and was deserving of the top ranking in the country coming into the game. They looked every bit of it for much of the game too, taking an early lead and extending that to as much as 14 points into the second half. But, this season in college basketball has proven that you never know what is going to happen, and the Illini never gave up for a second. The seniors, namely Tyler Griffey, really stepped up down the stretch, and it was just a feel-good story all around. Griffey, who had been virtually non-existent in the past several weeks, seemingly broke out of his shooting slump by hitting a jumper, then followed that up with a three ball. Griffey finished with 14 points, but helped significantly by grabbing 8 rebounds. D. J. Richardson and Brandon Paul also contributed during the comeback, leading the Illini in scoring with 23 and 21 points, respectively. However, the final couple of plays are what people will be talking about for years to come. With the score tied at 72-72, Richardson stole the ball and was poised to go in for the game winning layup. But the Hoosiers' Victor Oladipo swatted the ball away and out of bounds with .9 seconds remaining. Out of timeouts, the Illini had to work in an inbounds play they had practiced, and Griffey broke free from Christian Watford to score the winning basket as time expired. The win improves the Illini record to 16-8 overall and 3-7 in Big Ten play, and makes the next game even more important. The Illini travel to Minnesota to battle the Golden Gophers on Sunday afternoon (5:00 pm CT, BTN), and have a chance to sustain the momentum that this big win created. As far as memorable Illini wins are concerned, this one ranks right up there with the Arizona win in Chicago back in 2005, as well as the last time the #1 team came to town, which was Wake Forest back in December of 2004. This may not have been a season saver for the Illini, but it very may well go a long way in determining their fate once the brackets are announced on Selection Sunday.
The Illini women's basketball team's future is also looking up these days, as they continue to push onward toward the end of their season. Going into Thursday night's game at Michigan, Matt Bollant's squad had won their last six games away from home, bringing the true meaning of the term "road warriors" to light. However, their streak came to an end against the Wolverines, as they lost 72-69, but had a chance to tie the game at the end, but Ivory Crawford's three pointer rimmed out. Still, this season could be deemed a success for Bollant and the Illini, as they are 13-9 overall and 6-4 in the Big Ten, both marks surpassing last year's totals. The Illini also finish the regular season with 4 of the final 6 games being played at the Assembly Hall, and can make a strong case for a top 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament next month at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. The Illini will welcome Minnesota on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, BTN), then take a full week off before hosting Wisconsin the following Monday evening. If you haven't been out to see a women's basketball game this season, I strongly suggest you give it a try. They are a fun team to watch!
Tim Beckman landed a class of 25 players on National Letter of Intent signing day on Wednesday, and judging by the level of recruits incoming, the future could look a bit brighter. But before you accuse me of drinking from the trough that has the orange kool-aid, let me explain. The Illini won just 2 games in 2012, and the selling job that Beckman and his staff have done to bring these guys in is pretty good. Headlining the class is Aaron Bailey, a quarterback from Bolingbrook that could step in this fall and make an impact. Out of the 25, 10 are early enrollees and 5 of those came from the junior college ranks, which means that they have some experience. Other key signees in the class include Dillan Cazley from Charleston, Kendrick Foster from Peoria Richwoods, and Paul James from Miami, Florida. A complete list of the recruiting class can be accessed by going to fightingillini.com and choosing the football link at the top of the page. The Illini begin spring practice on March 5, with the annual spring game set for Friday night, April 12th at 8:00 pm.