ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF guard A.J. Davis dreamed about playing at Madison Square Garden.
Now, he can check it off his bucket list.
The Knights advanced to the National Invitation Tournament semi-finals, fighting off Illinois, 68-58. The Fighting Illini led for only one minute and 53 seconds during a game in which they shot an anemic 30.6 percent.
“Every game we are just trying to not give up threes and layups (and) make guys shoot tough twos,” UCF center Tacko Fall said. “We work on it every day.”
Fifty-seven miles — that is the distance between State Farm Center and Redbird Arena. Despite the proximity, the Illinois State Redbirds and Illinois Fighting Illini have played just eight times in 97 years.
A ninth meeting may be in the works for Wednesday.
If #1 Illinois State defeats #4 UCF and #2 Illinois is victorious against #6 Boise State, the in-state rivals will play for a trip to the 2017 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) semifinals. It would be the first time the two have battled in the postseason since the 1980 NIT.
Because the matchup is one win away, Bloomington-Normal is buzzing over the possibility to knock off the heralded program.
“They are obviously having a down year, and we are having an up year,” said ISU class of 1999 graduate David DiMarzio. “We should beat them.”
The first meeting between ISU and U-of-I was in Normal, Illinois, on December 20, 1920. The Fighting Illini were the victors, winning 31-21. The initial contest was the LAST time the Redbirds hosted the most distinguished college basketball team in the state.
Ironically, the imbalance in scheduling led DiMarzio to alter his allegiance.
“I grew up as an Illini fan because I didn’t know any better. Then I came to ISU, and I found out that they won’t play us here (at Redbird Arena),” DiMarzio said. “That’s the big reason that I stopped liking them and cheering for them.”
Since 1920, Illinois has won seven straight contests against Illinois State. No game has been a full-fledged blowout, however. The Birds have kept within ten points in four of the eight contests. Moreover, the 2011-2012 squad took the Fighting Illini into deep waters at the Cancun Challenge before being edged 63-59.
Yet, this Redbirds’ team is more talented than five years ago. Although Illinois State had Nic Moore, Jackie Carmichael and Jon Ekey, their record (21-14) pales in comparison to the final campaign of seniors Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins and Tony Wills (28-6).
With this in mind, Bloomington, Illinois, native Zachary Holland understands the significance of advancing to the semi-finals of a postseason tournament.
“That would be really big,” Holland said. “I don’t think that has ever happened.”
Holland is right: The Redbirds have not won a game, in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT, to move to the national semifinals.
Colleen Sherwood, who graduated from Illinois State last year, can describe the atmosphere for the Fighting Illini’s trip to Normal in one word.
“It would be crazy!” Sherwood said.
Whether the possible matchup leads to regular season contests is unknown. 2004 was the last time Illinois scheduled Illinois State for a non-conference bout.
Current ISU student Jacob Veazey has hope a victory could spark the beginning of a consistent rivalry.
“If we beat them in the tournament, I think it is a reason to schedule games yearly,” said Veazey.
School pride fills the community of Bloomington-Normal before tonight’s second round matchup versus UCF. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST on ESPN.
Nine days and one NIT win later, and Illinois Fighting Illini basketball has a new head coach.
No, neither Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall nor Dayton’s Archie Miller is heading to Champaign. Instead, Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood is upgrading his destination for the second time in two years.
If you are an Illini fan, buckle up because this road is set to get bumpy.
Brad Underwood is John Groce 2.0.
“We were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball,” said Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman in a statement. “Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness.
“Off the court, Brad builds strong, personal relationships with his student-athletes. His winning combination of strong Midwest values and tenacious work ethic are a perfect fit for our community and the Illini Nation.”
Granted, unlike Groce, Underwood has experience coaching at a major university. The 53-year old finished the 2016-2017 season with a 20-13 record and a 10th seeded Cowboys squad that pushed Michigan to the brink yesterday. Though, that is the ONLY difference.
Underwood is an unproven leader who lived off a one-man team for three years. Think about it, without Thomas Walkup, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks would have been nothing more than a mediocre team in the Southland Conference. Sounds familiar doesn’t? No? Groce did the same exact thing with D.J. Cooper (complemented by a young Nick Kellogg) during three years at Ohio University.
The comparison of NCAA Tournament upsets is impeccable. Underwood defeated 3rd seeded West Virginia in 2016, two years prior to dropping 5th seed VCU. Groce, in the same sense, claimed a 4th seed in Michigan, propelling the Bobcats to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012, which ALSO occurred two years before an upset of 3rd seeded Georgetown.
There’s no question an 89-14 mark at the Division I level is impressive — after all, it doesn’t happen overnight. Once one see the strength of schedule; however, the accomplishment becomes a different story.
In three seasons, Underwood’s Lumberjacks had an average strength of schedule of -5.47. -5.47!
Sure, he took advantage of Oklahoma State’s power conference status with non-conference matchups against Maryland and Wichita State this season. But, you must remember Oklahoma State basketball is heralded higher than Illinois; they have made the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years. Thus, do not expect non-conference showdowns with Wichita State and other powerhouse programs next season or even two years down the road. If you do, that’s unrealistic.
So, where does Illinois go from here?
The common philosophy is to allow a new head coach several years to adjust and build a great recruiting class. Ironically, John Groce has given Underwood the keys to a new Cadillac with incoming 4-star freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon and Da’Monte Williams, not to mention Florida grown Trent Frazier.
Is the future bright for Illinois?
Will it come as soon as next season?
Don’t get your hopes up. Underwood couldn’t produce an over .500 conference record in the Big 12.
Every year, teams see their dreams of making the NCAA Tournament come true, while others accept bids into other post-season tournaments.
Last season, 68 teams made the NCAA Tournament, 32 made the NIT, 16 made the College Basketball Invitational, 32 made the CollegeInsider.Com Tournament, and 8 teams took part in the inaugural Vegas 16 tournament. If the math is correct, that leaves 195 teams without a spot in post-season play.
Some teams aren’t even eligible for post-season play due to off-court issues, whether it’s due to low APR scorers or self-imposed bans.
That’s where we come in. We don’t discriminate, and even teams who aren’t eligible in the real world are welcome in our eyes. Living up to the Canadian stereotype of always being nice, we have included all 351 teams into one hypothetical post-season tournament.
The Iowa Hawkeyes took down the Nebraska Huskers, notching their third conference win in a row, improving their overall record to 14-10 (6-5 Big Ten).
The Hawkeyes’ will have to learn how to play without Senior star Peter Jok next season and if the past games without him have been any sign, they will be in good hands. They had to play back to back games without him and went 2-0 in those games. But, it was nice to see him back on the court and the Hawkeyes kept their winning ways with Jok with them this time.
The first half was back and forth, and the Hawkeyes barely went in to halftime with a lead, 38-36. But, the second half would be a nine point advantage for the Hawkeyes’, propelling them to an 11 point win. The return of Peter Jok was huge for the Hawkeyes’, but Jordan Bohannon also had his own story. He set the record for most made three-pointers in a season by a Hawkeye Freshman with 54 and counting.
For Nebraska, they have fallen a long way from starting 3-0 in Big Ten play. With this loss, they fall to 10-13 overall (4-7 Big Ten). Tai Webster, their best player, had 14 points and 6 assists. For him, that is a very quite night and it shows with the tough loss for Nebraska.
C0-Stars of the game: Jordan Bohannon (15 points, 5 rebounds, 4-6 3pt) and Peter Jok (12 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds)
Up next for Nebraska is a huge game against the best team in the Big Ten Wisconsin. They will host the Badgers Thursday.
The Hawkeyes’ will travel to Minnesota to take on the Gophers on Wednesday, with the chance to get their fourth win in a row.
Coming into Tuesday’s game against the Michigan Wolverines, the Wisconsin Badgers had not lost a game at home in over a year. But, the Wolverines gave it their best shot, but ended up coming up just short of an upset win.
The first half was a back and forth battle and the Badgers went into the halftime break only up by 5, 26-21.