After an outstanding run in the early-2000s, Illinois basketball has been stuck in a rut. Their 2005 run the National Championship game was nice, but since that time, the program has won just two NCAA tournament games. That stat led to the firing of Bruce Weber last year, and it was supposed to signal a complete rebuilding process for the Fighting Illini.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2012, and Illinois is undefeated and in the top 10. They’ve been tested in a lot of their matchups so far this season, and they haven’t cracked yet, so the question is: can John Groce lead this team to a Big Ten title?
The biggest issue for Illinois is not the amount of talent they have, that is for sure. Brandon Paul is not only making an early case for Big Ten Player of the Year and being a solid fantasy basketball starter, but National Player of the Year as well. He recently scored 35 on Gonzaga, a team many experts think is the top squad west of the Mississippi River.
What will get in Illinois’ way on their quest for a Big Ten title is just the sheer amount of teams in their way. They are ranked 10th in the country, but three other Big Ten teams are ahead of them. Two other Big Ten teams are also ranked, meaning Illinois is going to have a tough test almost every night come January.
First-year head coach John Groce has them believing again though, which is great to see. They went out to the Maui Invitational and took care of business there, but the most telling victory has to be that Gonzaga win on the road. The atmosphere at The Kennel is every bit as crazy as it is in Big Ten country.
The win against Gonzaga on the road proves they can play with anyone. Due to that, yes, they are a Big Ten title contender. They will not be the favorite, and that’s fine in their eyes, because they were not the favorites going into Maui or Gonzaga. In fact, they were not even on the radar for the Top 25 in the preseason. Groce has done a great job firing up his troops, but a long conference schedule still lies ahead. Realistically, they should finished 3rd or 4th in the conference. Then again, Illinois has been proving people wrong all season long, so winning it all isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Not with a hungry first year coach and an All-American candidate.
Eric Schmidt is the owner/editor of thepigskinreport.com. You can follow Eric on Twitter @bucco40 and make sure to visit the pigskinreport FB page. Make sure to visit our other sites- hardballchat.com, roundballchat.com and centericechat.com for all of your sports needs.