Here’s a cool fact: the Big Ten is one of the best conferences in men’s basketball this year. Experts are predicting eight or more teams could be making the dance this year, and six are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. This is without a doubt, one of the best years for the conference in NCAA history.
Here’s a less cool fact: Northwestern (6-21, 1-16 B1G) is in the Big Ten. And they are not a part of the elite eight like Illinois (19-9, 11-6 B1G), who beat the ’Cats 74-66 on Thursday night in a rough-and-tumble battle with fantastic performances across the board. Illinois sophomore Ayo Dosunmu swished 21 points and nabbed 6 rebounds, while freshman center Kofi Cockburn secured a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds. The true star, however, was sophomore guard Alan Griffin, who came off the bench to nail six three-pointers for 24 points.
“Tough to lose tonight, said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins postgame. "I think our guys have shown they're going to keep fighting. And it's definitely frustrating because I know there's a lot of guys that are putting a lot into this and just haven't been able to get over the hump."
“It's a relentless league this year," said Collins of the Big Ten. "There's just a lot of really good teams that are experienced, veteran, well-coached teams. You’ve got to go through some growing pains and we certainly have."
On the other side, the ’Cats saw four different players score double-digit totals: Graduate Pat Spencer with 18, sophomore Miller Kopp with 14, freshman Boo Buie with 11, and Pete Nance off the bench with 12. Spencer also grabbed three rebounds and dished three assists as he tried to keep the team within reach.
“I feel like tonight we didn't necessarily have them up by a bunch, but it felt like anytime we made a run we just weren’t able to close the gap fully,” said Spencer after the game. “It’s kind of been the consistent theme for us throughout the year, finding a way to close that gap or close games down the stretch. We are a young group, but at the end of the day, we got to find a way to get over that hump.”
The game was never truly a one-sided affair. The two teams battled throughout the first half, matching bucket-for-bucket before Illinois began to pull away on the back of Cockburn, who kept playing deep within the paint before slamming it home. After one period, the Illini led 34-26.
Like all season, however, the Wildcats kept battling back, first pulling back to within five after losing by eleven. That’s when Griffin came alive for Illinois, making five of his six three pointers in the second frame. Despite several attempts to come back and stay within the Illini, the eight-point lead stuck.
“I was proud of how we came back tonight," said Collins. "We could have laid down. We didn’t. We kept fighting … We played all the way to the end. And that's all that I'm asking these guys to do with our remaining games.”
So the team is responding to adversity and keeping in touch with the ever-going season theme of resilience. It’s a dynamic group that’s learning from the tough losses, fighting back, and wants to finish the season with one or two more conference wins. And here’s one more cool fact: they’ll have a chance to on Sunday, when they play Nebraska in Lincoln, who they beat in January for their sole conference win.
Let’s keep chipping away at the rock.