WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — This Illinois men’s basketball team is different. A lot different.
Led by Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Kofi Cockburn, it ignored history Tuesday night at Mackey Arena, routing host Purdue 79-62.
It was the team’s first win at Keady Court since 2008. Down goes another road drought. The second in a row. Illinois just beat Wisconsin for the first time in forever.
The players knew about the streaks, but didn’t dwell on them. Instead, they dispatched them.
Credit third-year Illini coach Brad Underwood for putting together the kind of team that doesn’t shrink on an opponent’s home court.
“We were really tough,” Underwood said. “That’s what we had talked about, a mindset of toughness.”
He understands the scarcity of Big Ten road wins.
“They’re nuggets,” Underwood said. “You value those.”
Though Purdue entered with just a 10-8 record, it had been near perfect at home. They only loss came early in the season against Texas. The Boilermakers stomped Michigan State and defending national champion Virginia by 29 each. Scary.
“No place tougher in this league than Mackey,” Underwood said.
But not on Tuesday.
Illinois overcame early adversity. The big-time variety.
Barely four minutes into the game, Giorgi Bezhanishvili picked up his second foul and had to sit the rest of the half.
That wasn’t as bad as what Alan Griffin did to himself. The super sub stepped on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic early in the game. After video review, the officials properly ejected Griffin.
Illinois was down two key players for most of the first half. So, Underwood was giddy that his team trailed by only one at the break. It could have been 15.
Follow the bouncing ball
Illinois dominated the second half. The way good teams are supposed to dominate.
The players got most of the 50-50 balls. On one Purdue possession that had the Boilermaker fans screaming in disgust, the Illini grabbed the rebound after a string of wayward shots.
Purdue was the frustrated team. That had been Illinois in recent seasons.
Now, the Illini make the impossible three right before the shot clock goes off. They find the open guy after one or two extra passes and the patient teammate buries it.
There were moments Tuesday — quite a few of them — when it felt like I was watching the 2004-2005 Illini.
OK, maybe that’s a step too far. But thanks to Dosunmu, Cockburn, Frazier and pals, the team is definitely pointed in the right direction.
Who thought it would happen six games ago when the Illini got drilled at Michigan State to star the new year? Put your hands down, fibbers.
Winning five in a row is a good thing. But there are plenty of challenges left, starting with Saturday’s 11 a.m. tip at Michigan. If the 21st-ranked Illini sweep the Wolverines like they just swept the Boilermakers, they will move high into the Top 25.
Maybe that brings added pressure. No problem. These guys seem thrive on it.
Talent helps. Dosunmu is cool and clutch. Every time Frazier shoots, the ball looks like it’s going in. Cockburn is the Big Ten’s best freshman. And, uh-oh, Bezhanisvili is starting to make his threes.
Time to re-evaluate
After Illinois lost to Missouri in the Braggin’ Right game one month ago, I questioned its ability to make the NCAA tournament.
I was wrong. It happens.
The Illini are on their way. And improving their seed with each victory.
There isn’t a game left on the schedule Illinois can’t win. Michigan will be a challenge, sure, and the Super Bowl Sunday game at Iowa is a chore. But they are both winnable.
So is a two-game Eastern swing against Rutgers and Penn State in mid-February.
The mental and physical makeup of the team should mean success in the postseason.
The Illini are in line to avoid the first day of the Big Ten tournament. And the second. The top four teams get double byes. Nice to sit Wednesday and Thursday while everybody else gets worn down.
Once Illinois makes the NCAA tournament, it will be a difficult team to knock out.
These guys won’t be bothered by hype. Or the weird atmosphere at early-round neutral sites.
In the mini tournaments that make up each round, the Illini have a chance to do serious damage. Bust a lot of brackets.
Send people home unhappy. Like they did Tuesday night at Mackey.