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License to Illini.
What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Tom Fornelli at The Champaign Room, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Illini.
1) So... Illinois. Kind of a weird team to figure out. You started out B1G play 2-7, but you're 6-1 since then. Wha' happened? Was it just a matter of shots that weren't falling in the first part of B1G play starting to fall again? Or has there been more to it than that?
I think it was more schedule than anything, though the play wasn't always encouraging either. The losses to Purdue and Northwestern were what caused people to worry a bit, but the other losses came against Wisconsin twice, Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan. What's been great about the recovery, other than it started with a win against Indiana, was that it was pretty unexpected. After watching this same team last year -- you know, except with the lottery pick at center -- they hit tough times and just fell apart. I think a lot of Illini fans were expecting the same thing to happen this year, it just didn't. And we're all thankful for that. A lot of that has to be due to John Groce not letting this team get down on itself.
2) I gotta say: I'm having a hard time finding things to mock about John Groce or dislike about him. Maybe it's just the newness factor, but he just seems like a pretty decent dude. He doesn't have that goofy voice like Weber had and he's not a complete assclown like Bo Ryan or Tom Crean. He just seems like a good dude. How are you liking the John Groce Experience so far?
He makes the best faces and has some great gesticulations. I feel like a camera on Groce for the entire 40 minutes might become one of the most popular shows in the country, right up there with Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. But, yeah, he's pretty popular these days. I was happy with the hire originally, though I did have some doubts about whether or not his style of play would truly work well in the Big Ten. At the moment those doubts have been silenced a bit, but I'm not going to make a final judgment on it after only one season.
3) Brandon Paul is the headliner for the Illini, but it seems like D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams have been been more effective during Illinois' recent hot streak. Is that accurate? Which players do Iowa fans need to be most nervous about in this game?
D.J. has definitely been the biggest player since the turnaround. It started when he dropped 30 at Nebraska in late January, and he's been pretty solid every since. Though he did disappear for a bit against Nebraska over the weekend but I think a lot of that had to do with Nebraska saying "we're not letting that son of a bitch score 30 on us again." As for Brandon, yeah, his shot has not been falling all that often lately, which hurts. At the same time, though, we've been winning while he struggles, so there's a sense that if he gets hot and that's coupled with the rest of the team playing as well as it has been and we can be pretty damn dangerous. So, if I'm an Iowa fan, I'm worried that Brandon suddenly starts hitting his shots rather than flailing into the lane and hoping to get to the line.
4) Are you feeling pretty comfortable about Illinois' NCAA Tournament status, regardless of how the rest of the season plays out? You seem pretty safe: top 40 RPI, a good schedule, and a handful of really great wins. What's the realistic goal for this team? Sweet 16? Beyond that?
I do think we're pretty safe. I felt like the Illini would still get in even if they lost their last three games, it's just a question of seeding, but after getting to eight Big Ten wins I feel it's a lock. In a season like this one where there are no "great" teams and there are so many teams checking in around the 20-win mark, our resume sets us apart from everybody else. There just isn't anybody that can claim wins against Indiana, Gonzaga on the road and Butler on a neutral court. Throw in the wins over Ohio State and Minnesota, and how can you say no at that point? As for the ceiling, the beginning of the year my personal goal was just to get back to the tournament. Well, now that that has happened, I think that a Sweet 16 run is probably as far as this team could go. That's best-case scenario because if they're shooting well they can beat anybody. It's just they're not going to shoot well six games in a row. Still, even if they get bounced in the first round, it'll hurt but I'll still be pleased with the season.
5) What's the state of the Iowa-Illinois rivalry from your perspective? It feels like it's weakened in recent years, although one of the absolute low points of Iowa sports in the last decade was when the Orange Krush completely took over an entire section of Carver-Hawkeye Arena at a game during one of the Lickliter years. Where does Iowa rank in your Pantheon O' Hate?
I can't speak for everybody, but as far as I'm concerned it's not very strong. Iowa is down on my list of hate for a myriad of reasons. First of all, when it comes to reasons to hate Iowa, I think Bruce Pearl is taking 110% of that flak. For me the rivalries are built on the field/court and we just haven't played very often lately. It's one of the reasons that I want the Big Ten to go to geography based divisions in football because I want Iowa in the same division. I mean, it makes total sense that our two schools would be rivals, but they have to play. Though, admittedly, not having Illinois and Iowa play a football game last season was probably best for all involved as it may have destroyed America's love affair with the game of football. So when you combine all of that with my romantic relationships with Patrick Vint and Adam Jacobi it's just really hard for me to hate Iowa right now.
But if Roy Marble can go all Serge Ibaka and Nnanna Egwu tonight and really stoke the fire.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I feel like this is a win for you guys tonight. The Illini are good on the road this year, but Iowa has been so tough at home and the Hawkeyes have so much to play for. There's no room for error for you guys if you want to get to the tournament, and a part of me feels like a letdown for the Illini is somewhat inevitable now that they have to know they're safe too. But I do think it's going to be a close, high-scoring -- for the Big Ten -- game. I feel like the first to 75 wins, and I think it'll be the Hawkeyes.
Thanks for being a good sport, Tom. I wish you guys the worst of luck tonight. You can check out Tom and the rest of the TCR crew at The Champaign Room. You can also follow him on Twitter at @TomFornelli and TCR at @Champaign_Room. The Iowa-Illinois game is in Iowa City on Tuesday, March 5 at 6:0pm CT, with television coverage from BTN.