Underwood’s Illini embracing ranking, opportunity to play on college basketball’s national stage

Sports

CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Illinois basketball will play in its first Top 5 game in 15 years on Wednesday when the 5th-ranked Illini take on No. 2 Baylor in the Jimmy V Classic. The last time a Top 5 showdown happened for Illinois was in the national championship game in 2005 against North Carolina. The latest regular season Top 5 matchup was Dec. 1, 2004 against Wake Forest when the Illini took down the top-ranked Demon Deacons. It’s also been awhile since the Illini have been ranked this high, closing out the 2005 season No. 1 in the polls, but it’s exactly where the Illini should be, according to head coach Brad Underwood.

“It’s where we belong,” Underwood said. “That part I’m proud of, we should be in these games. We’re playing in the Jimmy V, on national TV, against the second ranked team in the country. That’s exciting. It’s not something we take for granted but I do thing it’s where we should be. And it’s nice to be back there and have our chance to play on that stage.”

Illinois has never beaten a top-2 team away from home. Its highest-ranked win outside of Champaign happened against the third-ranked team on three separate occasions, most recently on a Nick Anderson 35-footer at the buzzer to stun third-ranked Indiana, 70-67, on March 5, 1989.

This is just the start of a tough stretch for the Illini, playing three out of four games on the road against high major opponents. After Wednesday’s game in Indy, the Illini come home to face UT-Martin on Saturday (8 p.m. tip) before heading to No. 6 Duke on Tuesday. Just four days later, Illinois is back on the road for the Braggin’ Rights game in Columbia, Missouri taking on the Tigers. Big Ten is scheduled to start just three days later when Minnesota comes to Champaign on Dec. 15. 

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