Illinois Basketball: Are Illini a B1G Contender or Pretender?

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2013

CHAMPAIGN, IL - JANUARY 05: Brandon Paul #3 of the Illinois Fighting Illini dribbles the ball against Aaron Craft #4 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Assembly Hall on January 5, 2013 in Champaign, Illinois. Ilinois defeated Ohio State 74-55. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After a 68-61 loss last Wednesday night at Purdue, many of Illinois' early season doubters were left smiling. After all, the Illini had just fallen to the team with the worst record in the Big Ten, the then 6-6 Boilermakers. 

Every flaw that Illinois' critics had pointed out through the nonconference campaign had been exposed. They were beaten on the boards by a young Purdue frontcourt, struggled shooting from behind the arc, and lacked the toughness needed to win any Big Ten road game.

Just three days later, though, the Fighting Illini got back on track. The team returned home to face the eighth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, whom they blew out 74-55. In the rugged Big Ten you can never take a night off, as John Groce's team will learn this Wednesday when they face now eighth-ranked Minnesota.

Regardless of Wednesday night's outcome, Illinois has shown enough gut and grit to prove they are a legitimate contender within the Big Ten Conference. Wins over Butler, Gonzaga, and Ohio State outweigh their slip ups against Missouri and Purdue. 

Last season, the three teams atop the Big Ten standings finished with 13-5 league records. It's hard to imagine winning a Big Ten title with any less wins than Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State a year ago, so can Illinois find a way to win 13 Big Ten games?

The presumed answer to that question is no.

As a huge Illinois fan and optimist, I do not think Illinois will win that many Big Ten games, but I think it's certainly possible. Let's take a look at the remaining 16 games for the orange and blue and figure out a way to get to 13-5.

vs. Minnesota: W (2-1)

@ Wisconsin: W (3-1)

vs. Northwestern: W (4-1)

@ Nebraska: W (5-1)

vs. Michigan: W (6-1)

@ Michigan State: L (6-2)

vs. Wisconsin: W (7-2)

vs. Indiana: W (8-2)

@ Minnesota: L (8-3)

vs. Purdue: W (9-3)

@ Northwestern: W (10-3)

vs. Penn State: W (11-3)

@ Michigan: L (11-4)

vs. Nebraska: W (12-4)

@ Iowa: W (13-4)

@ Ohio State: L (13-5)

Going unbeaten at home for the entire 2012-13 campaign would be no easy task, but if the Illini can defeat the Golden Gophers at home on Wednesday, it becomes a plausible feat.

Only Michigan and Indiana would pose as threats to defeating Illinois in Champaign, which they are certainly capable of doing, but Illinois showed a lot to me in their home performance against OSU Saturday.

If they can accomplish home dominance, a 4-5 Big Ten road record is within the works, though as the Illini learned no Big Ten road game is a gimme. Road wins at Wisconsin, Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa may be needed, none of which are easy places to play. That leaves road losses at Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State—all top 25 teams who would be favored over these potential road warriors.

Whether or not Illinois reaches Big Ten supremacy atop the conference standings, plenty of postseason accolades could go Illinois' way if they continue to play like they've played for the past two months.

Brandon Paul is on pace to become a First Team All-Big Ten performer and All-American. DJ Richardson and Tracy Abrams could find themselves on an All-Big Ten team, or Honorable Mention at least.

Joseph Bertrand is a spark off Illinois' bench and could contend for the league's top reserve. Nnanna Egwu has shown tremendous improvement from a year ago, while Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey have contributed to the frontcourt contributions.

Last but certainly not least, is first-year head coach John Groce. Not only is Groce a serious candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year, but also National Coach of the Year.

How far do you think he can take the Illini in his first season? Only time will tell.