What the hell was that? After losing four of its last five games at home, Illinois won Tuesday night, beating Northwestern convincingly, 66-50. This is the first time the Illini (16-12, 6-9) have won back to back Big Ten games since 2015 and the largest margin of victory in conference play this year for Illinois (matching the Michigan win early in the year). So, basically, this was totally unexpected.
Sure, Illinois beat Northwestern (20-8, 9-6) in Evanston two weeks ago, but the Wildcats were without top scorer Scottie Lindsey in that game, which kind of made the outcome sensible. Tonight? Well, the only explanation is that NU blew it.
This isn’t totally fair to the Illini, as they did play solid defense. To wit, Kipper Nichols had 3 fantastic blocks, Te’Jon Lucas had a couple steals (including one incredible strip of a would-be dunk), and Maverick Morgan, Leron Black and Michael Finke combined for 25 rebounds (10, 8, and 7, respectively). Those contributions should not be minimized, but context is important.
First, Northwestern did just about everything wrong on offense. They averaged 0.78 points per possession (terrible), turned the ball over on 17.9% of their possessions (woof), and had a new season low (besting the last game against Illinois) with a .321 (18/56) field goal percentage (atrocious). In the last 10:26 of the game, the Wildcats made exactly 1 field goal; in the second half, they scored a total of 18 points. Lindsey had just 2 points, fellow top scorers Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law combined for 16 points. These numbers are not good enough to beat Illinois or Rutgers or a mid-major or an NAIA team, they are losing numbers.
Second, Illinois did not particularly play a strong offensive game. The Illini shot 40% overall, 33.3% from behind the arc, and 64% on free throws. They scored 1.031 points per possession and had just two players in double figures scoring, Black (11) and Malcolm Hill (18). These are utterly average numbers. Northwestern leaves Champaign knowing they gave one away.
But where does this leave the Illini? To answer that, I’m going to borrow an idea from the late, great show Community.
The Brightest Timeline
On March 12, the Illini hear their name called on CBS as they enter the field of 68 and make the NCAA Tourney. After winning each of their last five games and scoring good wins over VCU, Michigan, and Northwestern (2x), then making a run into the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini are dancing. Young playmakers like Lucas and Kipper Nichols provide a boost, but leadership from the old guys keeps Hill, Morgan, and Jaylon Tate from becoming the first four-year players to miss the NCAA Tournament since the 1970s. Making the Tourney also keeps head coach John Groce in his job for another year and helps him reel in highly coveted recruit Mark Smith. With a top 10 recruiting class, Groce and the Illini return to the NCAA Tournament again in 2018, marking the beginning of a new run of great Illinois basketball teams.
The Darkest Timeline
Winning back-to-back conference games and sweeping Northwestern is an illusion, and Illinois fails to win again this season. The Selection Committee doesn’t waste a second considering the Illini and Josh Whitman quickly fires Groce after the Big Ten Tourney. Big name recruits, namely Jeremiah Tillmon and Trent Frazier, demand release from their letter of intent and head to greener pastures. The defection of recruits makes the Illinois job seem more toxic, scaring off top coaches. Whitman is forced to settle on, you guessed it, a MAC coach, signing Keith Dambrot from Akron. Dambrot inherits a roster devoid of interior players and Illinois continues to struggle, missing the Tourney again in 2018.
The Fluorescent-Lit Timeline
The Illini win their final road games, at Nebraska and Rutgers, but lose the home finale to Michigan State and fail to advance past Wednesday in the Big Ten Tourney. Finishing the year with a 17-15 record, the Illini do not go dancing and Whitman fires Groce. However, Whitman has prepared for this eventuality and convinces the recruits to wait for a coaching announcement. After Cal is eliminated from the Tourney, Cuonzo Martin is announced as the new head coach of the Illini. Martin keeps Groce’s recruits and also adds fellow East St. Louis product Smith, then turns the Illini into a 20-win team in 2018 and gets them back to national prominence.
Of all the timelines Illinois could be embarking on – and my examples are just a small offering of those possible – I’d say the Fluorescent-Lit Timeline is the most likely. The Illini are probably not good enough to dance this year, but they are a top-15 program historically and can be turned around by the right guiding hand. No matter what happens, though, at least fans always have this sweep of Northwestern.