A great January with seven-straight wins has Illinois at the top of the Big Ten

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CHAMPAIGN, IL – JANUARY 30: Giorgi Bezhanishvili #15 of the Illinois Fighting Illini shoots the ball against Alihan Demir #30 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers at State Farm Center on January 30, 2020 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – It’s less than a month ago, but it seems like a different season for Brad Underwood.

That was January 2nd, when Illinois lost to Michigan State by 20 points on the road, dropping their early Big Ten record to 1-2. In what was supposed to be a breakout season, the Illini found themselves on the very early bubble of the NCAA Tournament with a 9-5 record.

But the rest of the month has been nothing but positives for the group, who’ve found their stride over the past four weeks, and now find themselves atop the Big Ten standings.

A 59-51 win in front of a sold out State Farm Center on Thursday night gave the Illini their seventh-straight victory in the conference. That puts them into a tie for first with Michigan State as both teams sport an 8-2 record in the Big Ten.

Perhaps most important for the team is very much strengthens their case to snap a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought dating back to 2013, with their 16-5 record aiding the team’s rise in some March bracket projections.

Underwood’s team has found a way to win the close games during this recent streak, with four of their seven wins coming by four points or less. But what might be the most impressive part of the streak are the three road wins, which has been a rarity in a typically home-dominated Big Ten season so far.

Former Morgan Park High School star Ayo Dosunmu continues to pace the Illini in scoring with 15.6 points per game in the conference with Kofi Cockburn adding his 12.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per contest along with 15 total blocks in Big Ten play.  Yet others continue to rise up and have big nights for the team, including Andres Feliz, who had a team-high 17 in the win over Minnesota on Thursday.

“We’re the kinda team that anybody can have a night,” said Feliz on Thursday. “For us, we don’t have only one player that can go at it; we obviously have a lot of great players on this team, and that’s what’s so good about us.”

All of them will be tested in the next five games which will all be against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this week. A Super Bowl Sunday afternoon game at No. 18 Iowa starts it off with a match-up with No. 15 Maryland on February 7th. Current co-leader of the Big Ten with the Illini, Michigan State, comes to Champaign on February 11th, with road contests against No. 25 Rutgers and No. 24 Penn State following that.

Their record in that could very well play a big part in determining their position in the NCAA Tournament and perhaps a Big Ten title, which has eluded the program since the 2004-2005 season. But a strong January has put them in a position to think relatively big early in 2020.

 

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