College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning until practice tips off.

katz

The News-Gazette Andy Katz

No media member is higher on Illinois basketball than Andy Katz. Now an NCAA.com correspondent and Big Ten Network contributor, Katz snuck the Illini into the bottom of his Power 36 rankings during the 2018-19 season after their five-game winning streak to start February.

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Illinois followed that up with six losses in the final eight games of the season, with the only wins coming against Northwestern — the last-place team in the Big Ten. The Illini’s stay was a short one in Katz’s power ranking last season.

But Katz didn’t lose interest. He had Illinois ranked No. 36 in his first power poll after the Final Four and — perhaps after some gentle peer pressure by Illini forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili — bumped Brad Underwood’s team to No. 21 in May and then another spot to No. 20 in his latest update last month.

Episode 55: Our beat writer's bad, Bezhanishvili undoubtedly a starter

“Giorgi Bezhanishvili got on me about the Illini being 36 when the poll first came out after the Final Four,” Katz wrote most recently. “He was right, and in the two polls since then I have moved them up each time. Get on this train because the Illini will be moving fast next season.”

Bezhanishvili’s not the only player on board with the concept of Illinois being a top 20 team. The Illini as a whole feel that way.

“We’re looking to reach an even higher level,” sophomore guard Alan Griffin said. “We’re setting the notch for us to be a top 20 team because we all feel like that. We all went over that. We are a top 20 team, and we will prove that.”

Underwood is fine with Katz raising the expectations for his team. That’s what he wants. But even at No. 20, Illinois is still behind No. 1 Michigan State, No. 5 Maryland, No. 16 Purdue and No. 18 Ohio State in the Big Ten.

“We didn’t come here to finish 20th, though,” Underwood said. “I’ve said all along there were no shortcuts in this process. It takes time. You’re building a culture that we feel excited about. We play in the best league in the country, and nobody is going to let you pass them. So you have to do it the right way.

“You look on paper and we do have a lot of experience back, yet we’re also extremely young in terms of what our roster looks like. I’m excited. Illinois should have expectations put on them. We’re excited to get to go deal with that. We’re going to have another challenging schedule. We’re excited to be talked about in those conversations.”

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