Staff writer Jeff Huth’s take on the Illinois soccer team entering today’s Big Ten tournament at Bloomington, Ind.:
Which Illini team will show up: The gutty group that overcame a 2-0 deficit Saturday to win at No. 24 Michigan for the first time in program history?
Or the puzzling bunch that lost to a Northwestern team that finished in 10th place and tied a Purdue team that shared 11th place?
The version that takes the turf at Jerry Yeagley Field will go a long way toward determining how the defending Big Ten tournament champion fares.
In their favor, the fifth-seeded Illini (9-7-2) enter with some momentum after winning their last two regular season matches. Still, Illinois faces a highly challenging path, starting today (9:30 a.m.) with fourth-seeded Minnesota (11-7-1) and conference scoring leader Taylor Uhl. When the teams met Oct. 12 at St. Paul, Minn., the sophomore forward punched in two goals as the Gophers rolled to a 3-0 win.
If Illinois gets past Minnesota, top-seeded Penn State (16-2-1) likely awaits in the semifinals Friday (9 a.m.). The Nittany Lions dominated Illinois 4-0 on Sept. 23 in Champaign en route to their 15th straight Big Ten title, and they enter the tournament 11-0-1 in their last 12 matches.
The Illini would need a special performance to knock off No. 3 Penn State — the kind they produced last year against the Nittany Lions in the tournament title match. Illinois’ recent performance at Michigan shows it is capable.