CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Before the season started, Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood and his players didn’t shy away from expectations. The team embraced the challenge and road ahead, as they try and get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. After a few bumps in the road, the Illini are the hottest team in the Big Ten and winners of five straight games, just a half game out of first place.
“We definitely felt that way,” Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn said. “We knew that we had the tools to win, it was all about mindset, grit and with tenacity.”
That toughness has been on full display the last month. The Illini have road wins at Wisconsin and Purdue, two places the program hasn’t won in a decade. A home loss to Miami and a lackluster showing in the Braggin’ Rights game loss to Missouri feel like forever ago. That’ll happen when you start winning.
“I hope it means we’re developing an identity of toughness and that’s what it takes to win,” Underwood said. “We’ve just got to keep building, we’ve got to keep growing.”
And that’s the key, stacking wins. The Illini (14-5, 6-2 B1G) have 12 league games left, an even split with six at home and six on the road. A split would get them to 12-8 and a no doubt lock to make the NCAA tournament. Illinois is back in action Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at Michigan, a place the team hasn’t won since 2010 and just twice since 2005.