ILLINI IN INDY: Putting a memorable Big Ten season in NCAA Tournament perspective

Big 10 Sports

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 14: Illinois Fighting Illini guard Andre Curbelo (5) talks to Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood on the sidelines during the men’s Big Ten tournament college basketball game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Illinois Fighting Illini on March 14, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – One could make an argument that teams that took part in the 14-team league this past winter created the strongest play in its history.

The Big Ten was as good as ever in 2020-2021, with nine teams making the NCAA Tournament, two being named top seeds, while two others were second in their brackets.

It made the 20 games that Illinois played over the past few months and the three they took part in last weekend in Indianapolis some of the most challenging in school history. Yet the Illini managed to get through the gauntlet that was Big Ten play, finishing second in the regular season and winning the conference tournament championship.

Playing such a schedule figured to harden a team for the slugfest that’s typically tournament basketball, even if it takes on a different feel in 2021 since it’s entirely in Indianapolis.

Yet a simple lesson was taught to a few teams in “March Madness” already: All it takes is one bad 40 minutes of basketball to ruin a season.

Ohio State, who was fighting for a No. 1 seed into March, saw their tournament end with an upset against Oral Roberts. Purdue’s somewhat surprisingly strong regular season, which earned them a No. 4 seed, came crashing down in an opening round upset to North Texas.

Things got better as Friday and Saturday went along for the league, with Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Rutgers, and Maryland all advancing.

So could a Big Ten season actually be a detrement to the conference teams in the postseason? Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said no, but he made it clear Saturday that what happened then doesnt have nearly the impact in a single-elimination tournament.

“Sure, we beat each other up and it is a grind. There’s no doubt about that. That plays itself out over the course of 20 games,” said Underwood. “But I do think in a one-game situation, this thing becomes much more about the mental as much as the physical,” said Underwood. “You cannot let down and you have to play well.”

It was on his mind as he looks ahead to a match-up with eighth-seeded Loyola on Sunday morning at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Ramblers have a recent history of springing upsets and have taken care of business in 25 wins this season, presenting unique challenges for the top-seeded Illini.

While his team is a favorite thanks to their dominant play the last month-and-a-half, Underwood is aware of how things can go awry in the course of a few hours.

“Not everything goes perfect in this event. That’s why it’s madness and it’s special,” said Underwood. “I don’t buy into that as much. I think it has as much to do with match-ups and just figuring it out in that moment.”

His team will have to do so five more times to make their efforts in the Big Ten really worthwhile in 2021.

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