By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) If only Illinois had played that way against the other NU.
On Tuesday night in Lincoln, the Fighting Illini shucked Nebraska 71-51 in a dominating performance from start to finish that couldn’t have been more polar from the way they played last week in a 68-54 home loss to Northwestern during which Illinois never led.
With their backs pressed to the wall, Illinois conjured up a desperately needed victory over the Cornhuskers that snapped a three-game Big Ten skid for Illinois and bumped the team’s record up to 15-5, 2-4.
But it also posed the burning question: Who are these Illini?
Are they the team that whipped Gonzaga, Butler and Ohio State and rose as high as No. 10 in the national rankings? Or are they the team that lost 5-of-7 games, started out 1-4 in the Big Ten and was manhandled by the likes of Northwestern and Purdue?
We might not be able to say just who this schizophrenic Illinois basketball team is, but this we can be sure of: We’re going to find out soon.
Over the next three weeks, Illinois faces five opponents with a combined record of 78-15. Four of them are currently ranked among the Top 15 teams in the country. And all of them are going to be awfully difficult to beat.
The gauntlet, which Big Ten Network analyst Eddie Johnson on Tuesday night called Illinois’ “Hurricane Stretch,” begins Sunday evening when No. 2 Michigan (17-1) rolls into Assembly Hall. It then continues on Jan. 31 at No. 13 Michigan State (16-3), followed by home games vs. unranked Wisconsin (13-6) on Feb. 3 and No. 7 Indiana (16-2) on Feb. 7, before it’s finally capped with a trip to No. 12 Minnesota (15-3) on Feb. 10.
“That has to be the toughest five-game stretch that anybody has in the country to end January and start February,” Johnson said during Tuesday’s Illinois-Nebraska broadcast.
And if the Illini don’t batten their hatches during it, this stormy run of games threatens to completely shipwreck their season.
Thanks to consecutive losses to Minnesota (understandable), Wisconsin (forgivable) and Northwestern (inexcusable), Illinois already found its postseason hopes on the rocks heading into Nebraska Tuesday night.
It was encouraging to see the team, led by D.J. Richardson’s career-high 30-point outburst, respond vs. the Huskers (10-10, 1-6) and notch a crucial road win, which at least allowed for some hope heading into Sunday’s battle with the rip-roaring Wolverines.
Looking at the upcoming five games, it’s difficult to identify which give Illinois the best chance to win. If the Illini go 1-4, they will be 3-8 in the Big Ten. That would give them a razor-thin margin of error over the season’s final seven games if the team hopes to eke out a 9-9 conference record that should safely put Illinois in the NCAA Tournament.
If Illinois goes 2-3 over the next five, it would have more breathing room as it navigates the final stretch of the schedule, which still includes road trips to Michigan and Ohio State, as well as Northwestern and Iowa.
If the Illini somehow go 3-2 or better, well… let’s just say that would be a pleasant surprise, to put it mildly. But, of course, the Illini could also go 0-5, which would result in examining whether Assembly Hall is available for an NIT game.
All that said, this is an Illini team that has shown it’s capable of beating top competition this year. Now, without a doubt, is the time to show that again.
“I knew, just looking at all the other Big Ten teams being ranked and what the schedule was going to be, that they might struggle,” Johnson told the Champaign News-Gazette’s Marcus Jackson on Tuesday while sizing up Illinois’ prospects. “But they’ve had a good year, and I truly believe that if you’re truly meant to be a good team, you’ve got to go through the best to get there.”
The Illini are now entering that tunnel. We’ll see what they look like when they come out the other side.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.