By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Late Monday morning, my buddy Danny was preparing to board a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago when he spotted a familiar face outside his gate at LAX.
A Deerfield native and a proud University of Illinois alum, Danny approached Murray – the famous Wilmette native who proudly cheered on Illinois during the school’s 2005 Final Four run – and introduced himself as an Illini grad.
“We just beat Michigan State,” Murray replied.
Before his flight departed, Danny texted me the news of his fun exchange with the comedy icon. Which seemed so fitting, as the fun is back for Fighting Illini basketball.
For now, at least. But also, I’d argue, for the future.
At 6 p.m. tonight, Illinois will host 12th-ranked Michigan at State Farm Center in what’s suddenly become a huge game – and an even bigger opportunity for the Illini.
As I wrote last week, the Illini still control their NCAA Tournament destiny – in spite of how difficult most of 2014 has been. With Saturday’s thrilling upset at Michigan State – its third win in a row – Illinois is now 17-12 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten.
The game against first-place Michigan (21-7, 13-3) allows Illinois to continue the momentum with yet another statement victory that could ultimately add up to a late dash into the field of 68, something almost unimaginable just a couple of weeks ago. But things have now gotten interesting enough that not only is Bill Murray allowing himself excitement, but coach John Groce is too.
“The water is starting to boil,” the Groce said Monday, letting the good vibes bubble in Champaign.
When asked, Groce told the media that he couldn’t imagine a scenario in which it would be better for the Illini to play in the NIT over the NCAA Tournament, explaining, “I’m biased, and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to play in the greatest tournament in the world.”
I would agree. For a variety of reasons – among them passion, pressure and prestige – even an NCAA Tournament loss is always preferable to an NIT victory, in my book. And a spot in the big dance is what the Illini absolutely should shoot for until it’s out of reach.
But the thing is, with Illinois’ late run, even if it ultimately does result in an NIT berth, it will still have generated excitement and fun for the future of the program.
With a string of holding four consecutive Big Ten opponents below 50 points – a truly remarkable defensive feat – the emergence of potential future stars in its freshman class and a resurgence of key juniors, Illinois has given fans many fun things to think about, both now and later.
On Tuesday morning, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate wrote about Illini fans, “And you thought the season was over. You demonstrated that with your spotty attendance for Nebraska on Wednesday, and the UI offered four Michigan tickets for $40. Just begging folks to come out.”
But something is happening at State Farm Center, Tate continued: “Kendrick Nunn just won his second consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week award. Tracy Abrams is showing more guts than a country butcher. Rayvonte Rice has the hands of a burglar, and Nnanna Egwu is neutralizing every opposing center …”
All of those names will be back next season, along with fellow emerging freshmen Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate; three experienced transfers in Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul; and a pair of high school seniors who are scoring at rapid rates in Leron Black and Michael Finke.
Unlike a few weeks ago, fans can now see all kinds of light at the end of the Illini tunnel, which still may lead to the NCAA Tournament.
We’ll find out more about that tonight.