By Dave Wischnowksy-
(CBS) The last time Illinois and Colorado squared off in a game that truly meant something, the Fighting Illini fell far behind, staged a furious comeback and escaped with a dramatic one-point victory.
On the football field.
On Sept. 15, 1990, the 9th-ranked Buffaloes invaded Memorial Stadium and stampeded to a 17-3 lead before quarterback Jason Verduzco rallied the No. 21 Illini with a game-winning 63-yard drive capped off by Howard Griffith’s 1-yard TD dive with just 1:18 left.
Final score: Illinois 23, Colorado 22.
Check that, final score: Illinois 23, eventual national champion Colorado 22.
Come Friday afternoon, the stakes will be both bigger – and smaller – for the teams when 7th-seeded Illinois (22-12) and 10th-seeded Colorado (21-11) meet in the teams’ NCAA Tourney opener.
Pundits nationwide seem split on whether the inconsistent Illini can beat the upstart Buffs, but I’m guessing that most Illinois fans would be just fine with the team pulling off another one-point victory over CU.
Although that rallying-from-14-points-down might be a bit stressful.
As Illinois enters the Big Dance for the first time under coach John Groce, though, the question on the lips of Illini Nation is, “How far can the Fighting Illini go?” And the crazy thing is, it honestly could be anywhere from a first-round loss to a Final Four berth. Not many other schools in the tourney can likely say that same thing.
But, hey, we’ve come to know this Illini team for its wild swings.
Against Colorado, Illinois will be tested by a bruising herd of Buffaloes known for their rebounding and defense, especially 6-foot-7 junior Andre Roberson, who tallies 11 rebounds per game and was voted the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Roberson and leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie (16.6 points) comprise a formidable duo for Colorado, and the Buffs’ front line could indeed give Illinois fits. But CU’s roster is no more physical or formidable than many of the teams Illinois has already faced – and beaten – in the rugged Big Ten this season.
I expect Illinois to also beat Colorado and to advance to the second round of the tourney, where a Miami squad that won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles is likely to await. The Hurricanes would be a tall order for Illinois, and in my bracket, I’m not picking the Illini to get past them. But it’s also hardly impossible to envision Illinois weathering Miami’s storm and wreaking its own havoc in the tournament well beyond.
I hope the Illini do.
After all, the NCAA Tournament belongs to guards, and Illinois has two very good ones in seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson – when Paul and Richardson are very good, that is. The Illini also feature another pair in sophomore Tracy Abrams and junior Joseph Bertrand, who are equally as capable of going off for big scoring in any given game.
If the Illini guards get it together and find their shooting strokes at the same time, Illinois certainly could beat a No. 2 seed in Miami. Heck, the Illini have already beaten two No. 1 seeds (Indiana and Gonzaga) and another No. 2 (Ohio State) earlier this season.
If Illinois is able to somehow reach the tourney’s second weekend, things could then get really interesting. My pick to reach the Sweet 16 is No. 6 Butler, a team that the Illini already have beaten. I’ve picked No. 1 Indiana to advance to the Elite Eight, and Illinois has also managed to defeat the Hoosiers this season, too.
Illinois has the potential to beat anyone in its regional – and the potential to lose to its first-round game, too. Considering the Illini haven’t even been to a Sweet 16 since 2005, picking them to get back there this year may be a stretch. But, then again, Groce was there just one year ago with his Ohio Bobcats, so perhaps picking that isn’t so crazy at all.
Whatever the case, it’s all Madness anyway.
And it’ll be fun to see exactly who Marches through it.
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.