Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Early Big Ten test for Illinois

Among Big Ten teams, it's safe to say Illinois had the most surprisingly positive performance during the non-conference season. No one was expecting much of this team in John Groce's first year. These are still Bruce Weber's players—a ragtag bunch of talented individuals who just don't seem to have the patience required to play winning college basketball. But so far they've gone 13-1, with a neutral court win over Butler, an impressive road win over a very good Gonzaga team, and just the one loss to a good Missouri team on a neutral court. That résumé has them sitting at No. 11 in the current AP poll, and they're projected as a 3-seed in the tourney over at the Bracket Matrix.

Still, there's good reason to be suspicious of this Illinois team. First, there's history. Illinois started out 11-1 last year, too, and that start also included a nice win over Gonzaga (though it came at home). Then the wheels fell off. Illinois won just six more games and finished 17-15.

Second, a closer look at the way Illinois has won its games isn't as impressive as their won-loss record. For example, they just squeaked out a two-point win over lowly Auburn in Chicago the other day. Although they had the game in hand with just over a minute to go, they made several boneheaded plays in the final minute, which almost let Auburn back in the game. It was not real impressive to watch. They also barely beat a bad Hawai'i team (on the road), a mediocre Gardner-Webb team, and a bad Western Carolina team (which tied the game with six minutes left).

As a result, the computer ranking systems are not high on Illinois. Kenpom has them ranked 41st, and the Sagarin Predictor has them 35th.

If it weren't for the road win over Gonzaga, I'd be pretty confident in labeling the Illini a fraud. But Gonzaga is good—they're 8-0 against other Kenpom top-100 teams (including a huge win at Oklahoma State on New Years' Eve)—and Illinois is their only loss on the season so far. College basketball is, of course, a coach's sport, and there is a real possibility that John Groce has turned Illinois right around. So I'm withholding judgment.

Until at least tonight. Tonight Illinois plays at Purdue, which is deep into a rebuilding season. Purdue comes into Big Ten play with a 6-6 record. They have just one okay win (at Clemson) and at least one terrible loss (at Eastern Washington Michigan, 47-44). They're not likely to be favored in any Big Ten game except their games against Northwestern (at home), Nebraska, and Penn State.

Purdue is bad enough that even a win by Illinois tonight will not prove they are for real. But a loss tonight will prove—to my satisfaction, at least—that Illinois is just fool's gold.

Illinois is a 2.5 – 3 point favorite. I'll take Purdue and three points.

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