Illinois Fighting Illini Confident They Can Contend For Big Ten Championship

By Brian Lester
Mike DiNovo – USA TODAY Sports Images

Illinois survived against Auburn Saturday afternoon at the United Center, securing an 81-79 after the  Tigers played as if the world was going to end in the final minutes.

It didn’t matter what the final margin of victory was for the Fighting Illini on Saturday. After a loss to Missouri last week, Illinois needed a win.

It got it and now it turns its attention to Big Ten play. Interestingly enough, on a day when Tracy Abrams clicked for 29 points to pave the way against Auburn, team leader Brandon Paul seems to be brimming with confidence that Illinois can contend for a conference title.

“I just feel like we have a lot more weapons and a lot more confidence, not only in myself, but the guys that I play with,” Paul said in a post-game press conference. “They come in with the mindset that they’re going to compete every game and play hard and what’s going to dictate the end of the game is how we play.”

Nothing wrong with having confidence, confidence that stems from the fact that Illinois is 13-1 and ranked No. 12 nationally.

But winning the Big Ten is going to require more than just good shooting performances and stellar defensive efforts. Toughness is also necessary.

Do the Fighting Illini have what it takes to get the job done in what could very well be the best conference in college basketball this year?

I’m not sold on that yet. Then again, it’s too early to rule them out as a contender. Anything is possible.

“Home, road, all of them are fistfights,” Illinois head coach John Groce said in a post-game press conference. “Toughness is really, really important. Execution is really important and then players making plays is important.”

Brian Lester is a featured Big Ten columnist and college basketball writer for Rant Sports. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association as well.

Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993 or send him an email at

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