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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois bench erupts after Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) dunks in their season opener at State Farm Center in Champaign on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois bench erupts after Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) dunks in their season opener at State Farm Center in Champaign on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

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Big Ten basketball: Ah, Bubble Heaven.

Bubble, rubble, gurgle, gulp! A burst bubble has been the Illini’s fate in recent years, a program that once reached the NCAA playoffs in 25 of 33 seasons suddenly going zero for the last six.

At the same time, a conference that sent a meager four teams into NCAA play as recently as 2018 (eight made it last March), appears weighted down by major uncertainties. In games through Friday, the Big Ten dropped 12 games, the Big 12 three, the Pac-12 three, the SEC eight, and the 15 ACC teams nine. Yes, the Big Ten is falling behind. And these games count with the NCAA committee. From all appearances, it has the look of a “down year.”

Gone is Purdue’s one-man gang, Carsen Edwards, along with another dozen of the league’s most prolific producers (Ethan Happ, Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, Bruno Fernando, Romeo Langford, Jordan Poole, etc.).

Early failures have borne this out: Northwestern lost to Merrimack by 10, Iowa trailed DePaul by 24 in losing 93-78, Nebraska succumbed to Riverside and Southern Utah, Minnesota lost to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah, Purdue fell to Texas and Marquette, and Wisconsin dropped an OT thriller to St. Mary’s (which promptly lost to Winthrop).

Little about Rutgers’ wins over Bryant (73-71) and Drexel (62-57) indicates the Scarlet Knights will finally climb out of the Big Ten’s nether regions. Penn State (3-0) was sharp in downing Georgetown but has a shaky history to overcome. By my count, 10 or 11 of these conference teams face a struggle to avoid the bottom half. And that lower seven will be checking out NIT possibilities.

Where do the Illini rank?

An undoubtedly improved Illinois team must be questioned after dreadful second halves vs. Nicholls State (an OT win) and Arizona (90-69 loss), these performances displaying still-porous defense and shaky ballhandling (62 turnovers, amounting to no shots in 27 percent of possessions).

Meanwhile, Michigan State remains atop the litter, the Thursday defeat of Seton Hall offsetting the opening loss to Kentucky.

The talented Spartans are a lock to earn their 23rd consecutive NCAA spot along with fast starters Maryland (hasn’t played anyone worthy) and Ohio State (whipped Cincinnati and Villanova). The balanced Buckeyes are 3-0 without anyone scoring more than 14 points in a game.

If Michigan (3-0) is to join that elite trio, the Wolverines will have to show it in December after coasting through a weak November schedule. It’s anyone’s guess how far the veteran trio of Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson can carry them. Juwan Howard’s Wolverines face tough tests against Louisville and Iowa directly ahead of their Dec. 11 date at Illinois.

Let’s look at the Hoosiers

Our mystery team, as is often the case, is Indiana.

The Hoosiers lost Juwan Morgan and Langford, with whom they failed to reach the NCAA tournament. This team doesn’t project to be as good.

But we won’t know for a while. Their first eight outings are at home, and they should be 7-0 when they host Florida State on Dec. 3. Juniors Al Durham and Justin Smith are expected to lead the way, and 6-9 freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis is an excellent pick-up. Early momentum could carry through conference openers against Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Tate’s tidbits

— UI coach Brad Underwood made a serious bid for TJ Holyfield before the power forward transferred from Stephen F. Austin to Texas Tech. Holyfield is averaging 18.7 points in three runaway triumphs for last year’s Final Four team.

As it stands now, UI sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili is making a difficult transition to the position, what with 6-7 Tevian Jones suspended, senior Kipper Nichols not quite measuring up and 6-8 freshman Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk missing preseason due to a stress fracture. With 6-10 Coleman Hawkins committed, it’s anyone’s guess how this will play out next season.

— All signs point to Morgan Park’s 6-3 Adam Miller not only announcing for Illinois Thursday, but actually making it official before the signing period ends Wednesday. A high-production scorer, Miller is a perfect fit alongside incoming playmaker Andre Curbelo.

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

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