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Back on Dec. 2, Tim Miles' jokes drew a chuckle.

His Nebraska basketball team was fresh off a 75-60 rout of Illinois and headed toward an 11-2 start. Dreams of gaining the school's first-ever NCAA victory were real.

Fast forward two months to Feb. 2. Illinois spanked the Cornhuskers 71-64, and the losers carried an 8-for-10 tailspin into Purdue late Saturday night. The Omaha media and the Husker Board aren't laughing at his quips, and in fact are calling for his dismissal. Next season is even more bleak than the present with team leaders James Palmer, Glynn Watson, Isaac Copeland (injured) and Tanner Borchardt concluding their eligibility.

Past success not present now

Point is: In college basketball, the swings come at a dizzying rate. Teams change, sometimes dramatically. Rookies learn not to foul. Injuries play a major part.

Imagine, for example, the possible results if the once-hapless Illini, now riding a 4-for-5 upswing, could have a do-over with opponents that whipped them earlier.

— Take Georgetown, an 88-80 winner on Nov. 13. The Hoyas, buoyed by 38 bench points at Illinois, no longer look like that club. Beaten Saturday by Butler, they've lost six of the last 10 and stand 5-6 in the Big East.

— Take Xavier, an 83-72 winner in Maui. These aren't the Musketeers who won 104 games in the previous four years. A dismal 11-12, they carried a five-game losing streak into Saturday night's date with DePaul. — Take Notre Dame, a 76-74 winner when Trent Frazier's trey caromed out. Now 2-7 in the ACC with eight losses in the last nine games, this might be Mike Brey's weakest team. In 19 years, his Irish have finished under .500 just once. It doesn't help that forward Rex Pflueger is sidelined.

— Take Missouri, a 79-63 Braggin' Rights winner. The Tigers are 11-11 and have dropped eight of 10 SEC dates. Of those eight losses, six came by double figures. Mark Smith has missed four games and parts of others with an injury.

Same old Rutgers? Not quite

OK, we can't say that Illinois would defeat Georgetown, Xavier, Notre Dame and Missouri now. But we'll have a better idea when early conquerors Northwestern and Indiana arrive here in March.

Saturday's nerve-wracking overtime defeat of Rutgers capped a stirring 3-0 homestand. What was projected as a defensive battle wound up with two teams shooting a combined 50 percent (73 of 146) and the Illini narrowly missing the 100 mark in a 99-94 result.

Coach Brad Underwood likely spoke the truth when he said: "A couple of months ago, I'm not sure we would win this game. We had no answer defensively."

No, not when Rutgers took the court with bigger, more athletic players and blasted inside for 13 layups and dunks in the first half. With the visitors leading 45-42 at halftime, the crowd of 14,099 realized that, oh my, Rutgers is on the same path of improvement as Illinois. Four talented Rutgers freshmen combined for 65 points. That's right. Rutgers' wins over Ohio State and Indiana weren't flukes.

Trying to explain the unexplainable

So, in the Big Ten, the unexpected has become the norm.

You might run into an Iowa team on a hot streak with an unmatchable 15 of 21 treys. Illinois did.

You might hit Wisconsin when virtual unknown Nate Reuvers is playing out of his mind (22 points, 10 rebounds). Illinois did.

You might catch Maryland unawares even as the Terps' twin towers nullified Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Illinois did.

You might wonder how Kipper Nichols could rebound from five scoreless games to rack 18 against Nebraska. Don't try to figure it out.

You might see Cassius Winston's Big Ten MVP hopes dashed as Michigan State floundered with 24 turnovers. We blinked along with Tom Izzo here.

And you might see a Rutgers freshman, who had reached double figures twice in 22 games, rack 25 points on 10 field attempts. That's what Caleb McConnell did Saturday.

Nevertheless, the most popular Illini in town — step aside, Lou Henson — owned the paint to the tune of 35 points in a third straight UI triumph. Bezhanishvili's scoring matched his effusive personality Saturday.

The next step is even more important. These Illini travel to Ohio State Thursday without a win in five tries on opponents' courts. That's the next step in this quest for respectability.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com