Illinois, Northwestern end disappointing Big Ten seasons in opposite ways

PISCATAWAY, NJ - FEBRUARY 25: Kipper Nichols #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in action against Deshawn Freeman #33 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the first half of a game at Rutgers Athletic Center on February 25, 2018 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Illinois defeated Rutgers 75-62. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – Here in the State of Illinois, many knew that the 2017-2018 Big Ten season would be an unusual one even before a game tipped off.

The playing of the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden forced the schedule to be moved up an entire week, since the Big East would be occupying the pre-NCAA Tournament week slot. It meant for a pair of games to be played in December and the regular season to end before March arrives.

That alone could be reason for local fans to sour on this campaign from the beginning, but the state team’s performances didn’t help either. In a bit of a shock, Northwestern never found the groove they took all the way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year despite returning most of their team. Meanwhile Brad Underwood’s first year at Illinois was as much, if not more, of a rebuild that fans could have expected.

While their trajectories were the same most of the season, they veered from each other just a bit in the regular season finale.

Early on Sunday in Piscataway, Illinois delivered one of their better 20 minute spurts of the season to finish off their game against Rutger. In his final regular season game, Michael Finke contributed 19 points while Leron Black put in 14 as the Illini outscored Rutgers 40-26 in the final 18 minutes to win it 75-62.

It’s nothing to get terribly fired up about considering the win only kept Illinois from finishing in last place by themselves in the Big Ten, but for a rough conference season for Underwood, a nice ending to a 4-14 season at least brings good vibes before their Big Ten Tournament opener against Iowa on Wednesday.

Speaking of the Hawkeyes, they put the stamp on a disappointing conference season for Northwestern in a big way on Sunday evening.

Sluggish out of the gate, the Wildcats fell behind by 17 points at halftime and were never able to recover despite ] nine three-pointers and a career-high 32 points from guard Scottie Lindsey. The 77-70 loss is the sixth-straight for the Wildcats to end the regular season, dropping them to 6-12 in the Big Ten.

The tenth-seed in the conference tournament, Northwestern will face seventh-seeded Penn State on Thursday at 5:30 PM.