Another day, another conference win for Illinois. Make that 23 of its last 26 Big Ten conference games to be exact. The Illini improved to 23-3 in that span after a dominant 80-67 win over No. 11 Wisconsin Wednesday night inside a rocking State Farm Center.
Kofi Cockburn Is The Best Big Man In College Basketball
It was cold and snowy outside, but that did not stop the Illinois offense from catching fire on the interior from start to finish, where they shot over 50 percent from the field. It was all through National Player of the Year candidate Kofi Cockburn, who posted 37 points and 12 rebounds.
The performance will be one to remember for Illini fans as the big man absolutely dominated the Badgers bigs inside, making jump hooks or dunking the ball with authority all night. Wisconsin had no chance against him.
The Big Ten Runs Through Champaign
With the win, Illinois now sits atop the Big Ten for the time being. The Illini control their own destiny, making their matchup with No. 4 Purdue next week that much more important.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, however. Illinois travels to Bloomington, Ind. on Saturday to play a tough Hoosiers team. Indiana has won 13 of its last 14 home games; no team is better at home in the Big Ten this season than Indiana.
The task at hand will not be easy. Illinois undoubtedly enters the hardest part of its schedule in February. Their next five games after Indiana and Purdue include: hosting Northwestern, at Rutgers, at Michigan State, hosting Ohio State, and at Michigan.
If Illinois comes out of that stretch 5-2, Brad Underwood and company can feel great about their chances of winning the program's first regular-season conference title since 2005.
Nonetheless, the game against Purdue next week becomes that much more important to avoid having a share of the Big Ten at season's end.
Adversity and Health
Illinois is finally back to full strength, again. Andre Curbelo returned to the lineup after missing the last two games while in COVID protocols.
The playmaker scored seven points in 12 minutes. He's likely to see an uptick in minutes in the coming games. His presence undoubtedly changes how teams game plan for Illinois, as I previously discussed following the two-overtime thriller against Purdue.
Underwood deserves a ton of credit for keeping his team together and playing well despite the injuries. College basketball analyst Seth Davis believes Underwood has snuck into the Coach of the Year conversation as well.
Accolades will come if deserving, but this team is playing like they haven't forgotten what happened in March of 2021. There is still a ways to go, but Illinois is gaining steam and beginning to play its best ball of the season. Whether the Illini are peaking too early or not is a question we can debate about in the coming weeks.