Oh what a time it is to root for the University of Illinois Men’s basketball team. After the pandemic cut last season short, many fans were left wondering just how far this group would’ve gone in March. The Illinois team was headed into the tournament ranked 21 by the AP poll following their 21-10 season. Going into this year, there sure is plenty of hype surrounding this team, especially after guard Ayo Dosunmu decided he would return for another season. With expectations at an all time high, we’re here to discuss the five keys for the Illinois men’s basketball team as they compete for an NCAA championship.
Claim the Big 10 Crown
First and foremost, this Illinois basketball team needs to win the Big 10 conference. Given the schedule restrictions for this year, this won’t be an easy task. But that’s not to say it’s an impossible one. Every remaining game on the schedule is against a Big 10 opponent, which means there’s a lot less games that can be considered as automatic wins. However, this stronger schedule could bode well for tournaments as the team will be more prepared for tougher competition in important games. Last year, the Illinois basketball team finished 4th in the Big 10 standings and were knocked out in the second round of the Big 10 tournament by Iowa. They’ll certainly need to make it a lot farther this season to have a shot at the NCAA title.
Win the Big Games AND the Small Ones
Another important key to the success of this team will be winning both the big games and the small ones. When we refer to, “big games”, we mean the ones against other highly ranked teams in the NCAA. The Illinois men’s basketball team already secured a win against Duke (10), but we couldn’t find the same success against the higher ranked Baylor (2) earlier in the year. As for the smaller games against unranked teams, U of I can’t afford many losses. Earlier this season the team had a close one almost slip away against unranked Ohio University, and last week we lost a game against Mizzou. There will be plenty of big games against tough Big 10 opponents all year, but winning those will mean little if we can’t beat the small guys too.
Get Kofi Cockburn More Involved
At the heart of this Illinois basketball team is big man Kofi Cockburn. Last season, Cockburn had a monster year where he averaged 27.5 points/game and 8.8 rebounds/game. He’s been able to keep things going off the glass this season, but his scoring output has dropped a bit. Whatever the case for this, the team will need to look to getting him going offensively if they want to compete for a title. Of course, they still have plenty of games to figure things out and when this team gets into the swing of things later in the year we may see a whole new Kofi. The rest of the NCAA has been warned.
Keep Up the Bench Production
A strong group of bench players is the key to any deep tournament run. Fortunately for the Illini, their bench has been nothing short of excellent this year. They’ve already seen some important minutes in the Duke victory. Andre Curbelo and Giorgi Bezhanishvilli came off the bench for a combined 23 points and added some much needed production to hold off the Blue Devils. Bezhanishvilli had another great game against a ranked opponent when they played Baylor (2), where he scored 15 in the loss. At the end of the season when guys are more tired and need extra time to rest their legs, the bench output will be a key to success. If early signs are any indication, we’re in good hands.
Stay Healthy and Avoid COVID
Nothing can derail a team more than injuries, something that basketball fans in Illinois should know all too well. So far there haven’t been any reasons for concern from an injury standpoint. As far as COVID goes, the team hasn’t dealt with any scares on their end. A game against University of Tennesee – Martin on December 5 was cancelled due to positive cases from the other team. This was the teams first and only instance a game didn’t play because of COVID. Hopefully the Illini won’t have to deal with this as the season goes on and they can keep their players on the court.
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Featured Image Credit: Illini Men’s Basketball Instagram