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A Midseason Re-Preview? Illinois, Loyola hot; Northwestern, DePaul still not

It’s looking an awful lot like early 2021 out there.

Kofi Cockburn has more than lived up to the billing at Illinois.
Kofi Cockburn has more than lived up to the billing at Illinois.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s the second week of January, and 2022 already is a broken record.

We’re talking college basketball here, people.

Illinois and Loyola are trending up. Northwestern and DePaul are on the way down. And guess who’s No. 1? Defending national champion Baylor. Guess who’s No. 2? Gonzaga, the runner-up last season.

Other than having fans in the stands — and let’s not make light of such a wonderful thing as that — it’s looking an awful lot like early 2021 out there.

But that’s OK. It doesn’t mean we already know what’ll happen from here. Many of us don’t even know what has happened up until now.

The season is a couple of months old, but we’ve had our noses in college football, the crumbling of the Bears and the rise of the Bulls. How much sports can a person consume and still find time to fret about the pandemic, watch an obscene number of TV series, vaguely interact with loved ones and properly drink? Asking for a friend.

College football is over, though. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace are in the rearview, too. It seems like a good time for a college hoops catch-up. A Midseason Re-Preview, let’s call it. Or maybe we shouldn’t.

The dunk

If one play could get you caught up on the season, it would be Maryland freshman Julian Reese’s dunk on Illinois star Kofi Cockburn last week. More accurately, it would the unholy terror unleashed by Cockburn after the dunk.

Reese threw one down early in the second half, hung on that rim and almost literally sat on Cockburn’s massive shoulders. The 7-footer just smiled. Then he destroyed the Terrapins with 16 points and 15 rebounds — again, all in the second half — because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Cockburn will make it two first-team All-Americans in a row for the Illini, following Ayo Dosunmu.

The Illini are ranked No. 25, with four Big Ten teams — Purdue (No. 7), Michigan State (No. 10), Wisconsin (No. 13) and Ohio State (No. 16) — ahead of them. But somebody forgot to tell the sportsbooks, which give the Illini the best odds of any team to win the conference.

Cockburn has been spectacular. Transfer Alfonso Plummer’s deep shooting has been a godsend. A 5-0 start in league play is clutch. A second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament isn’t out of the question.

They’ve still got it

Is Loyola even better post-Porter Moser than it was under the architect of the program?

‘‘I’m not sure if the talent level is higher,’’ ex-Ramblers star Cameron Krutwig wrote in a text exchange, ‘‘but people want to come here now.’’

Transfers such as Ryan Schwieger, who came from Princeton and leads the team in scoring. The high school recruiting map for first-year coach Drew Valentine’s list certainly has expanded, too. Meanwhile, the quality of this team — whose only losses were to current top-10 teams Auburn and Michigan State — is undeniable.

Six players have led the Ramblers in scoring. Five have led them in rebounding. Four have led them in assists. And this is one of only four teams in the country that’s shooting at least 50% from the field and 40% from the arc.

Is it March yet?

No, ’Cats

Northwestern won eight of 10 games to start the season, with a road victory against Maryland to open Big Ten play. Then, as if on cue, came the losing streak. There’s always a losing streak. This one is at three, with the Terps coming to Evanston on Wednesday.

There’s no overstating how bad it has been: The Wildcats are 20-61 in conference games since their breakthrough to the NCAA Tournament in 2017. Anywhere else, those would be get-you-fired numbers.

2021 Roman Legends Classic Northwestern v Providence
The struggle continues for Collins.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

‘‘It’s really hard to win in the Big Ten,’’ coach Chris Collins said after NU’s last game, a 95-87 loss at Ohio State. ‘‘It’s really hard to win no matter who you play, where you play them. I continue to be in awe of how well-coached the league is.’’

Speaking of being in awe, the Wildcats had Ty Berry, Chase Audige and Pete Nance score in the 20s against the Buckeyes. Do you realize how hard it is in college ball to do that and lose anyway?

Look out below

Show of hands: Who remembers DePaul’s hot start to the season?

Anybody?

Crickets?

The Blue Demons were 9-1 after beating UIC. They had upset victories against Rutgers and Louisville in their back pockets. They were going places under first-year coach Tony Stubblefield.

Now they’re 0-5 in the Big East — alone again in last place — after losing 87-76 on Tuesday at Marquette. Dave Leitao could have seen to this.

DePaul plays hard — and Javon Freeman-Liberty is terrific — but where are the ballhandlers and playmakers? Where are the shooters? The Blue Demons led Villanova at the half Saturday, then missed 11 of their first 12 shots out of the break. You can guess the rest.

Among other indignities, that’s 21 consecutive losses to Villanova. When the ‘‘L’’ will it end?