Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Stay Away From Number One. My best advice for teams trying to avoid losses: stay out of the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll. Every team should take the floor on a given night with that underlying objective – winning games is a generally good thing, I’d wager – which makes that logic a really interesting counterfactual. The only way to reach the top is by winning games, but if every team to inherit No. 1 dating back to January 7 (when Duke opened up the week at No. 1 for the fourth consecutive week) has gone on to surrender the ranking in the seven days that followed, it begs the question: are teams better off avoiding the coveted weekly AP crown? Of course not. That preamble was, in essence, a roundabout way to introduce you to the latest slain No. 1. On Monday, upon the AP poll’s customary afternoon release, it will be official – especially if Indiana falls at Ohio State Sunday. The Hoosiers were the main storyline from Thursday night, but they weren’t the only one.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Illinois Needed.
There is only one way to go about discussing Illinois’ win over No. 1 Indiana Thursday night. It is a season-defining moment. The Illini were fading fast in Big Ten play, descending into NIT territory far quicker than anyone could have imagined after an excellent nonconference season, but as we’ve seen time and again this time of year, one win can change everything. This win – which saw Illinois rip off a 13-2 run with under four minutes remaining after being down by double digits for most of the second half – changes the conversation around Illinois. It brings renewed optimism to a conference season that, up until Thursday night, had done more harm than good to the Illini’s Tournament chances. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier, and Illinois will need to improve its still-lacking 3-7 league record. But with a win of this magnitude in your back pocket, Illinois’ view on the rest of the season changes considerably. The final eight regular season games and Big Ten Tournament are no longer about hunting upset wins. The Illini got that Thursday night. From here on out, John Groce’s team needs to handle business against equal-to-inferior competition (Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, at Iowa), watch the bubble soften up around them and sit back as its solid computer figures and stable of marquee wins carry them over the finish line. Those above games aren’t guarantees – such games don’t exist in this year’s Big Ten. But Illinois is more than capable of handling all of them. Few wins will mean more on Selection Sunday than this one; Illinois is back in the discussion, at the very least, and depending on how the at-large picture shakes out over the next month, the Illini could look back to Thursday as the night they sealed their Tournament fate.
Your quick Hits…
- Wolters Goes For 53. Few mid-to-low major players in today’s college game hold as much national appeal as Wolters. Not to the casual post-Superbowl Hoops crowd; rather, he is something of a college hoops nerd’s cult fascination, for reasons understandable and not. On Thursday night, he did something memorable. Something that will stick with Wolters for the rest of his basketball-playing career. He scored a Division-I season-high 53 points. He converted nine three point shots, and 17 total field goals. He expanded the Wolters legend into a tangible and largely appreciable concept for college hoops fans previously unaware of his brilliance. Wolters is an excellent basketball player, but no one – not even the most ardent Wolters’ supporters – saw this coming.