What’s good — and what’s not — with Illinois and five other teams that could win the Big Ten
The mountainside is a bit crowded, with Maryland, Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Rutgers all having realistic shots at reaching the top first.
Illinois is in position to contend all the way into March for what would be its first Big Ten regular-season title since 2005. That year, the lllini had Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head — head-spinning athleticism and skill. The current group doesn’t have that kind of flash, but, hey, gritty is cool.
“We’re building to get Illinois back to where Illinois belongs, as one of the best programs in the country,” coach Brad Underwood says. “Do I think we’re at the top of the mountain? No, but we’re climbing.”
The mountainside is a bit crowded, with as many as six teams that have realistic shots at reaching the top first:
MARYLAND (9-3, 19-4)
What’s good: The Terrapins have an all-league-caliber leader in point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and a dynamic double-double guy in Jalen Smith. They have junkyard dogs on the wing who’ll defend all night. This isn’t Mark Turgeon’s most talented team, but it’s a tightly bonded group that’s hungry for the school’s first Big Ten title.
What’s not: For some reason, the ball keeps not going into the basket. Imagine how good the Terps would be if they weren’t at the bottom of league shooting rankings.
What’s left: Tuesday vs. Nebraska, 2/15 at Michigan State, 2/18 vs. Northwestern, 2/23 at Ohio State, 2/26 at Minnesota, 2/29 vs.Michigan State, 3/3 at Rutgers, 3/8 vs. Michigan.
ILLINOIS (8-4, 16-7)
What’s good: If all else fails, this team can lean on defense, rebounding and, when playing at home, a completely rejuvenated State Farm Center crowd. Having multiple ballhandlers — Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz — gives coach Brad Underwood a lot of options. Led by Dosunmu late, the Illini have been road warriors.
What’s not: The Illini are under 30 percent from the three-point line in league play, a glaring weakness. Seven-footer Kofi Cockburn needs to get the ball more.
What’s left: Tuesday vs. Michigan State, 2/15 at Rutgers, 2/18 at Penn State, 2/24 vs. Nebraska, 2/27 at Northwestern, 3/1 vs.Indiana, 3/5 at Ohio State, 3/8 vs. Iowa.
MICHIGAN STATE (8-4, 16-7)
What’s good: The Spartans lead the league in both field-goal percentage and field-goal-percentage defense. Oh, and rebounding, too, because that’s what Tom Izzo teams are placed on this earth to do. Add in an elite point guard, Cassius Winston, and how are they not in first place right now?
What’s not: Too often, the absence of a clear second banana to Winston presents itself. Josh Langford — out all season with an injury —would’ve been a huge help.
What’s left: Saturday at Michigan, Tuesday at Illinois, 2/15 vs. Maryland, 2/20 at Nebraska, 2/25 vs. Iowa, 2/29 at Maryland, 3/3 at Penn State, 3/8 vs. Ohio State.
PENN STATE (7-4, 17-5)
What’s good: Football coach James Franklin must be jealous of Pat Chambers’ ability to get his players to dominate the turnover game. The Nittany Lions are the best in the league in turnover margin, which means — try to stay with our X’s-and-O’s brilliance here — more looks at the basket than the other guy gets.
What’s not: It’s a bad rebounding team, which has a way of offsetting all those steals at the defensive end. Senior big man Mike Watkins is maddeningly inconsistent.
What’s left: Saturday vs. Minnesota, Tuesday at Purdue, 2/15 vs.Northwestern, 2/18 vs. Illinois, 2/23 at Indiana, 2/26 vs. Rutgers, 2/29 at Iowa, 3/3 vs. Michigan State, 3/7 at Northwestern.
IOWA (7-5, 16-7)
What’s good: The Hawkeyes have not only the top player in the league — that would be 20-and-10 machine Luka Garza — but also the most formidable one-two punch in Garza and underrated slasher Joe Wieskamp. The highest-scoring team in the league can put a backbreaking run together at any time.
What’s not: Defense is a rumor under Fran McCaffery. See: Purdue’s 61-point first half Wednesday in a 104-68 blowout that made the Hawkeyes look like pretenders.
What’s left: Saturday vs. Nebraska, Thursday at Indiana, 2/16 at Minnesota, 2/20 vs. Ohio State, 2/25 at Michigan State, 2/29 vs. Penn State, 3/3 vs. Purdue, 3/8 at Illinois.
RUTGERS (7-5, 16-7)
What’s good: The Scarlet Knights have a lot of guys who can score — Ron Harper Jr., son of the former Bull, being the most explosive of them — though no one is averaging more than 11 points in league games. Rutgers Athletic Center, known far and wide as the RAC, keeps racking up victims.
What’s not: Well, there’s the whole no go-to guy thing. And away from the RAC? Yikes. The Knights are 1-7 in road and neutral-court games.
What’s left:Sunday vs. Northwestern, Wednesday at Ohio State, 2/15 vs. Illinois, 2/19 vs. Michigan, 2/23 at Wisconsin, 2/26 at PennState, 3/3 vs. Maryland, 3/7 at Purdue.