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Back in the thick of things
It’s March and will you look at that? Illinois men’s basketball is relevant again.
Not only are the Illini relevant, but they control their own Big Ten title hopes. Thanks to Rutgers’ win over #9 Maryland on Tuesday, Illinois can win its first conference title since 2005 if it wins its final two regular season games.
It won’t be easy. Thursday brings a trip to Columbus, where Illinois will need to notch one more big road win in a game against #19 Ohio State. Sunday features a visit from #18 Iowa. Neither game screams gimme.
The title likely won’t be outright, either. The Big Ten has been a rock fight all season and the top of the standings has been a logjam. The Illini could be sharing their banner with Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin if everything holds.
Ask Illinois’ players, coaches and fans if they care.
“To me, it’s so gratifying to know that Illinois basketball is back where it belongs,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said on The Jeremy Werner Show on Tuesday. “(It’s) the last week of the season and people talking about you as being one of the top teams in the best conference in the country. I’m excited as heck about that. Illinois, to me, is in its deserved spot.”
It’s been a long road back. After winning four titles at the start of the century and 2005’s memorable run to the NCAA title game, the Illinois program hit hard times. Illinois would make the tournament four more times in Bruce Weber’s remaining seven years, but failed to get past the first weekend each time. The five-year John Groce era started strong with a tournament appearance in 2013, but soon wilted.
The Illini haven’t been back since.
That will change a week from Sunday when the selection committee meets and puts Illinois into the field of 68. My pal (and Illini alum) Brad Evans currently has Illinois on the sixth-seed line with my Badgers.
So, yeah, it looks like the Brad Underwood era is going well. After going a combined 16-39 his first two seasons, the hire from Oklahoma State has paid off in his third year. This is the first time since 2010 that Illinois will finish the Big Ten season over .500, a fact that helped Underwood sign a three-year contract extension through 2026 earlier this week.
It certainly helps to have a program-changer like sophomore Ayo Dosunmu, a Morgan Park product who signed with Underwood at the start of the coach’s first signing day. But the team, which has shown a strong ability to close out games, runs much deeper than just Dosunmu and it’ll be interesting to see how that mettle pays off in either of the upcoming tournaments.
As a UW alum, I can’t profess to be an Illini fan. Especially not after last fall’s field goal. But I do like seeing the state school do well, even if Dosunmu is really the only player from the Chicagoland area. The run the Illini had in the Dee Brown/Deron Williams era was so much fun that it changed a pro sports-mad city into an orange-clad college town, even if only for a few early spring weekends. It’s hard to believe it’s already been 15 years since that magical month.
Now, make no mistake. This season is not that and won’t be unless this team somehow wins six games over the season’s final three weekends.
But it’s a lot closer to the territory a proud program in a proud basketball state should be occupying. If Illinois basketball isn’t fully back, it’s getting a lot closer.
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Blackhawks 6, Ducks 2
Did this blowout win come against an Anaheim team that was already terrible before it was ravaged by the flu? Yes. Does it matter? No. Two points is two points.
What I wouldn’t give to know what it feels like to pull off a pass like this …
DePaul 69, Marquette 68
Blue Demons play without Paul Reed, but hit 31 of 35 free throws to beat a sliding Marquette team and get their third Big East win of the year.
A’s 6, Sox 5
Luis Robert goes 1-for-2 with a walk, a run and a stolen base
Rockies 11, Cubs 10
Everyone hits for the Cubs (well, except for Jason Kipnis. He went 0-for-4.)
Bulls at Timberwolves (7 pm, NBC Sports Chicago, line suspended)
Northwestern (+13.5) at Wisconsin (8 pm, BTN, O/U 130.5)
Sox at Brewers (2:05)
Cubs at Reds (2:05, Marquee)
The Bulls won’t have Zach LaVine’s services for a second straight game. He’s being held out of tonight’s game in Minnesota with a quad injury … Coby White was named Eastern Conference rookie of the month for February … David Kaplan got the rumor mill spinning on Tuesday with a report saying the Bulls would be interested in opening the checkbook for OKC GM Sam Presti.
The Cubs “did nothing nefarious” ruled the arbitrator in the Kris Bryant service time case. The AP obtained the 42-page report of Mark Irvings, which said it could not find evidence to prove the Cubs had intentionally manipulated Bryant’s service time in 2015 in order to gain an extra year of team control … Ben Zobrist will be in Cubs camp all week “taking it all in,” but he’s not looking for a roster spot.
The Sox signed right-handed reliever Zach Putnam to a minor-league deal. The 32-year-old was a member of the Sox from 2014-17 but hasn’t played since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017.
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• Now this is you introduce yourself to your new team: Dallas Keuchel took 125 members of the White Sox organization out to a steakhouse and picked up the $25,000 tab himself. (USA Today)
• The Fire announced its broadcasting team for games on WGN and ESPN+ this season and they’re going big time: NBC Premier League announcer Arlo White, rising star Tyler Terens and USMNT legend/Fox analyst Tony Meola. (Hot Time in Old Town)
• Arlo is a Brit who hails from Leicester, but he also happens to be a diehard Cubs and Bears fan. Kevin Fishbain on how that happened. (The Athletic)
• Vegetarians in Wrigleyville now have one less spot to eat. (Eater Chicago)
• Finally, let the Field of Dreams hype begin …
That’s it for today. Thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter!
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