Friday, February 12, 2010

Making some 'nois in the Big Ten

If you'd asked me a month ago, I never thought I'd be writing this on February 11: Illinois is tied for first place in the Big Ten. Tuesday's win over Wisconsin combined with Michigan State's third consecutive loss (after starting 9-0) leaves three teams tied at the top at 9-3 (the other being Ohio State) with Purdue on their heels at 8-3.

The Illini are halfway through a four-game stretch against ranked opponents, and have won both matchups thus far. I figured they needed to win at least one in order to position themselves for a tournament berth, and that two wins would virtually guarantee it. With two already in the bag, Illinois can really impress the selection committee by winning against either Ohio State (Sunday at noon) or at Purdue (February 20).

Illinois' five straight wins have created a situation in which the co-leader of the Big Ten is not ranked while the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th-ranked teams are in the top 25. To have the leader of a major conference unranked is quite the unique scenario.

That's fitting given the uniqueness of Illinois' win in Madison. Under Bo Ryan, Wisconsin had been 100-1 at home against unranked conference opponents. They're now 100-2. Still pretty good.

So how did Illinois accomplish such a rare feat?

1. Demetri McCamey

The man could not be stopped. Floaters in the lane, 23-foot three-pointers, driving layups--it was all working for McCamey. He had 27 points and threw in seven assists to boot (he leads the Big Ten in the latter category). It was the ninth time in 10 games he's scored in double-figures, and it marked the first time he's scored 20+ points in back-to-back games since December. He's also had at least five assists in all but one game since December 8.

I've had my issues with McCamey. In the past, he's had games in which he's been invisible. He's also had games in which he's gotten trigger-happy and fired up deep threes early in possessions. But when ESPN's commentators noted during the MSU game that McCamey is 10th in the nation in offensive efficiency (points + assists), I had to cut him some slack. In fact, in every game in which he has failed to score in double-figures this season, he has notched at least seven assists.

2. Mike Tisdale

A guard in a center's body (at least height-wise; he's too skinny to be an effective center). He was nailing jumpers all game long against the Badgers, going 8-of-11 from the field, mostly on 10- to 18-footers. He had 19 points, though he managed just three boards.

3. Not Mike Davis

Remember how I said McCamey can be invisible at times? Well Mike Davis is a freakin' super hero when it comes to the power of invisibility. ZERO points and ONE assist for the 6'9 junior. It was the fifth time this season that Davis scored two or fewer points.

So barring a complete collapse, Illinois will be dancing come March. But even more exciting is the fact that this young team now seems capable of playing with the Big Ten's big boys, and even an unexpected regular season (and/or conference tournament) title is still on the table.

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