The Illinois Fighting Illini won their first 12 games and cracked the top-10 of the polls. Since then they have lost seven of 10 games including five of their last six contests.
However, Illinois is inching closer to regaining the form that led them to that No. 10 ranking and an upset win over the then No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes by nearly 20 points. The latest close call came Thursday against the 13th ranked Michigan State Spartans. The 80-75 loss on the road showed the Fighting Illini have the talent to go on the road and compete with the cream of the crop in the Big Ten.
Everything that could have gone right for Illinois did. Spartans’ center Derrick Nix did not start after missing class earlier this week and then both guards Gary Harris and Travis Trice got hurt crippling Michigan State’s depth. The Fighting Illini could not capitalize on the shorthanded Spartans, who were led by Keith Appling’s 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Illinois’ stars were able to match Appling, but the role players did not play all that well.
Illinois has some great talent with Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams and these players have played well for the Fighting Illini. However, it is the role players that will need to step up for Illinois to regain its form from earlier this season. Even though Illinois’ big wins over Butler and Gonzaga came courtesy of big games from their stars, in the Big Ten that formula will not work and it will be up to role players like Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand to help keep the Fighting Illini competitive in the latter part of the season.
The schedule seems favorable for Illinois towards the end of the season, but unless the role players step up, the Fighting Illini will miss out on a golden opportunity.