CHAMPAIGN — A pair of Quadrant I victories in a week’s time, including a momentous road win, didn’t just push Illinois to sole second place in the Big Ten standings. It also propeled the Illini into the national college basketball conversation.
They reaped the rewards Monday, checking in at No. 24 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll.
It’s Illinois’ first top 25 ranking since the 2014-15 season, when a Las Vegas Invitational victory saw the Illini ranked 24th on Dec. 1, 2014. That ranking lasted just one week’s time after a loss at ranked Miami dropped out of the poll. They haven’t been ranked — or snapped their streak of missed NCAA tournaments — since.
Illinois (12-5, 4-2 Big Ten) will ride a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s 4 p.m. showdown with Northwestern (6-9, 1-4). The streak started with a 26-point blowout of Purdue — a Quadrant II victory — before the Illini snapped their 15-game losing streak against Wisconsin on the road and won ugly at home against Rutgers in a pair of games decided by a combined four points.
Saturday’s game against Northwestern won’t do much to boost Illinois’ top 25 or NCAA tournament résumé given it would be just a Quadrant III win (or loss). But that game will lead the Illini into perhaps a defining segment of their season. Consecutive road games at Purdue and Michigan followed by games against Minnesota (home), Iowa (road), Maryland (home) and Michigan State (home) give Illinois a shot at five more Quadrant I wins and another in Quadrant II.