Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy
March 7, 2022
The day began with the Illini needing some help to claim a share of the B1G regular season championship. The fact that they were in this position with the number of missed games they dealt with this year was amazing. Kofi was suspended, Curbelo was out with a concussion protocol, a myriad of players had COVID, almost as many had the flu, and injuries to this player or that player throughout the season, crowned by the loss of Austin Hutcherson for the season meant the Illini players missed a ton of games- but this Illini team didn't give in. It became a "next man up" season.
Thankfully, the Nebraska Cornhuskers didn't give up either. Even when their first half double-digit lead melted under withering pressure from a spate of poor referee whistles coupled with some solid shooting from the Badgers, the Huskers kept playing. Alonzo Verge, Jr. led the way. Despite the Huskers having neither Trey McGowens (who was thrown out after committing a Flagrant 2 foul that injured Wisconsin star Johnny Davis) or his brother, injured Huskers leading scorer Bryce McGowens, the Cornhuskers won on the road 74-73 over the favored Badgers.
The Illini had to face their now arch-rival, the Iowa Hawkeyes to win a share of the title. In a game that surprised no one, it went down to the very end with both teams battling for the lead. The Illini took the lead for good with 4:57 left to go and held on for a 74-72 win.
With the win, the Illini won their 18th Big Ten championship of all time and their first since 2005. They will be the #1 seed in the B1G tournament. While both the Illini and the Badgers were 15-5, the Illini's 80-67 victory over the Badgers served as a tiebreaker.
Brad Underwood has rebuilt the Illini program back to the heights that it was at in the 80s and in the early 00s. The Illini are the B1G's winningest team over the last three seasons with a 44-16 record in league play, and a 47-16 mark when including the conference tournament. These 44 wins represent the winningest 3-year stretch in Illinois basketball history and the 6th winningest 3-year run of any B1G program. Illinois is 29-6 in its last 35 games versus B1G opponents.
The Illini could've lost this game, if the Hawkeyes would've hit their free throws. Despite being on the road and despite having to play the human jackhammer in the middle, the Hawkeyes shot 22 free throws, compared to just 18 for the Illini. No matter how one wants to dissect the game, the Hawkeyes missed an uncharacteristic 12 of 22 free throws. In comparison, the Illini made 14-18 when they went to the line.
The four made free throws advantage would essentially decide the game for the Illini. They only won by 2 points. The invaluable nature of the free throw is impossible to argue. If the Hawkeyes shoot their normal 78.4% from the free throw line, they would've made 17 free throws instead of the 10 they did make. That would've given the Hawkeyes 7 more points. With 7 more points on the board for the Hawkeyes, the Illini are likely playing a much riskier game, fouling even more often and putting the Hawkeyes at the line even more often. It's easy to postulate the Hawkeye win could've been much larger than if one were to only add the 7 made free throws to the Iowa score.
Free throws matter.
It is fair to say that Coleman Hawkins is fully out of his late season funk and back to playing at the high level that he displayed in the non-conference season. Hawkins is playing with an energy that is contagious and his effort on the defensive end of the court has been critical to the Illini's late game heroics, which are typically keyed by getting stops on the offensive possessions of their opponents.
Hawkins had 11 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocked shots to go with his 9 points. He hit both of his free throw attempts, which turned out to be bigger in retrospect than many would've thought at the moment he made them. That type of stat stuffing, across the gamut of stats, contributed mightily to the rally that the Illini executed last night.
Keegan Murray was guarded often by Colemen Hawkins, and Murray ended up with 22 points. Murray needed 22 shots to get his 22 points. He had to work hard for every basket. When it takes that many shots for him to score, it means opportunities for the Illini to get rebounds and end possessions. By comparison, Colman Hawkins had 9 points on 5 shots. That's the type of efficient scoring that helps win games. Slowing down Murray, even a bit, is key to beating Iowa, Hawkins accomplished that task.
Make no mistake, Kofi Cockburn should be the B1G Player of the Year. Every time he goes out of a game, the opponents make a comeback on the scoreboard. Against Iowa, Cockburn was a +15 when he was on the floor. He ended up with 21 points and 14 rebounds with 2 assists and 3 blocked shots.
Kofi is the one player on the floor who Iowa (and most other teams) has trouble matching up with. He forces mismatches in the lane and the double teams that he attracts because he cannot be guarded one-on-one provide open looks for Illini shooters hunting for 3-point shots. The Illini had a weak first half defensively, at one point allowing baskets on 11 of 12 possessions. Without Kofi's 13 points and 9 rebounds to carry the Illini, they wouldn't have been within 6 points of Iowa at the half and Illinois may have had their B1G title hopes ended prematurely.
Kofi's presence in the middle makes this team a threat to beat any team they play in any given game. This season, Kofi participated in senior day, just in case his annual testing of the draft waters were to result in news that he would be a first-round pick in this year's NBA Draft. In the event that does not happen, the Illini hope to have the single most important player in college basketball back next season. He requires every team to game plan for him. If he's left unaccounted for, it generally means an earth-shattering dunk is the result.
All hail the King, long live the King, and long should the King attend the University of Illinois.
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