The Big 10: Illinois’ crucial stretch, Loyola’s high-wire act, Coach K’s final visit to UNC

Starting Saturday at Indiana, the Illini’s next four road opponents have a combined home record of 43-5.

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Arkansas State v Illinois

Andre Curbelo and the Illini have a big stretch coming up.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Illinois is deep into its third straight outstanding basketball season, but the “E” word is being used a lot lately to describe the program and, well, some folks might want to simmer down a few degrees.

Elite? The Illini?

Nope, not yet.

Not trying to crush anyone’s orange spirit here, but even the biggest block “I”-heads ought to be able to admit that zero Big Ten regular-season championships since 2005 speaks for itself. But in case it doesn’t, consider that Michigan State has won or shared the title six times since then; Ohio State five times; Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin three times apiece and Indiana twice.

You get the picture. But the Illini are in first place at 9-2, with most of the usual suspects — Michigan State (8-2), Purdue (8-3), Wisconsin (8-3), Ohio State (6-3), Indiana (7-4) — in contention. With nine games to go, the Illini clearly have a strong chance to get back on the regular-season-title board. Do that and then we can talk about “elite.”

Sound like a plan, Brad Underwood?

“What you guys mumble about and what our fans mumble about, I don’t give two rips about it,” he said.

Great, so we’ve got that going for us.

On to the rest of the Big 10 (where 10 actually means 10):

2. Five for fighting: Starting Saturday at Indiana, the Illini begin a five-game stretch that also includes Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan State on the road. Combined home records of the Hoosiers, Boilermakers, Scarlet Knights and Spartans: no big deal, merely 43-5.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s next road game against a team currently in the top six in the standings isn’t until Feb. 24. Purdue’s isn’t until Feb. 26. Michigan State’s isn’t until March 3.

Might want to take a mental snapshot of that view from the top, Illini fans.

3. The Kofi machine: Illini junior center Kofi Cockburn is averaging 22.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. How good is that? Put it this way: If he can stay at or above 22 and 11 for the season, he’ll be just the fifth major-college player to do so in the last 30 years. The previous four were Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody and three dudes who went on to be top-two NBA picks: Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin and somebody named Kevin Durant.

4. Loy-oh-no-la: As frustrating as it might be, 17-4 Loyola probably can’t afford to lose a third Missouri Valley game if it wants to avoid a scenario in which a conference tournament championship is its only route to the NCAA Tournament. That makes Sunday’s game at Missouri State look pretty scary. The Bears got 40 points from Isiaih Mosley and won at Gentile Arena two weeks ago.

5. Ramblers, man: You want a streak? Here’s a streak. Loyola has won 23 straight against in-state opponents. That includes five wins each against Bradley and Southern Illinois, four against Illinois State, two against UIC, one against DePaul and one against — what’s the name of that school again? — Illinois.

Virginia v Notre Dame

Irish coach Mike Brey after a win against Virginia.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

6. No Dame? Shame: Out of 61 AP Top 25 voters, only four — including yours truly — ranked Notre Dame in the current poll. Are we amateurs? Fools? Rubes? At least one of us is. But the Irish stormed into the week on a 10-1 tear, then lost to Duke and got a very impressive win at Miami. The metrics say no to the Irish, but there probably aren’t 25 teams playing better right now.

7. NET, shmet: Yes, the NET rankings are highly influential in college basketball. No, some of us still aren’t smart enough to understand them. Then again, who could begin to make sense of six-loss Villanova’s NET ranking of No. 8 in the country — four spots ahead of three-loss UCLA, which beat the Wildcats, and 17 spots ahead of Marquette, which beat the Wildcats twice?

8. Duke-UNC: Mike Krzyzewski coaches his final game at North Carolina on Saturday, and what a scene that will be. Roy Williams is crying just thinking about it, and he doesn’t even coach there anymore.

9. A tie? Northwestern visits Nebraska on Saturday, and do you realize what that means? Either the Wildcats are going to be on a real, live, two-game Big Ten winning streak or the Huskers — 0-11 in conference — are finally going to avoid Huskering.

10. No offense, Pac-12: Illinois guard Alfonso Plummer, a graduate transfer from Utah, has no problem shooting straight about which conference is better.

“I feel like the Big Ten is more athletic, feel like it’s got more quick guards, big guards and — for sure — big men,” he said. “I don’t think the Pac-12 ever had a Kofi. I feel like the Big Ten is more athletic and big guys, where the Pac-12 is more systematic [with] guys who can score but they’re not that athletic or tall.”

For what it’s worth, Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin — who scored 30 in a win at Illinois in December — and skyscraper teammates Christian Koloko, Azuolis Tubelis and Oumar Ballo probably would disagree.

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