Illinois remains on verge of best-of-the-rest in the Big Ten


Jacob Slabosz

Junior forward Coleman Hawkins attempts a jump shot against Indiana on Jan. 19.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

There’s a logjam in the Big Ten. Five teams with six losses — Maryland, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State and Illinois — muck up the race for the number two behind Purdue. Currently, Northwestern occupies that spot, but the Wildcats are only a game ahead of the Big Ten’s above average bunch, a spot they could very easily lose in the coming weeks.

Now that the weather has turned to a balmy 35 degrees, Illinois men’s basketball is in the stretch run, seeking that difficult to hold second spot. They play Indiana on Saturday. Winners of eight of their last 10, 18-8 and climbing in the national rankings, the Hoosiers are having quite a season. Their senior big-man forward/center Trace Jackson-Davis is the reason why.

He averages a double-double, 20 points and 11 boards. He’s third in assists for Indiana and first in blocks, averaging three a game. In short and made very simple; he’s an All-American. He’s Indiana’s best player and, if Zach Edey hadn’t grown all those inches, would be a shoe in for the Wooden Award. He’s ridiculous, and last time Illinois met him he put up 35-9-5 — ridiculous numbers.          

“He’s a really good player, and you don’t slow down really good players,” Brad Underwood said about Jackson-Davis. “Best passing big man in the country.”  

Size, experience, strength: that’s what he brings to the table. Underwood described him with the word “mutant.”    

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“They are playing through (Jackson-Davis) every single trip,” Underwood said. “They don’t hesitate to do anything else.”

What Underwood is seeing and saying is something that anyone who watches any Indiana basketball can tell you — it all revolves around Jackson-Davis. Both teams, everyone in the stadium, knows where he is, where he’s posting up, where the defense is doubling. In that sense, like an NBA player, he’s too good to guard normally. Like Steph Curry, Demar Derozan or Shaq, once he gets to his spot it’s over; the possession is decided before his shot, not after. 

“It became too comfortable,” Underwood said about his team’s last defensive performance against Jackson-Davis. “We let him catch it on his spots; we let him catch it deep, where one or two dribbles he got it where he wanted.”

Only one other Hoosier averages in double digits, and that’s Jalen Hood-Schifino, former 5-star and potential future NBA player. He’s at 12.6 a game with 4.1 assists — fantastic numbers for a freshman.

“They put Hood-Schifino, who’s a pro, they put an NBA point-guard out there, gave him the ball, and everybody else has been really good in their roles,” Underwood said. 

The Hoosiers know their roles, play them well; orbit, like the Earth does the Sun, Trace Jackson-Davis — the giver of life, the provider of buckets.

Some exciting news, for Illinois at least, is the return of sophomore Luke Goode, finally filling the final seat in Brad Underwood’s clown car of tall, athletic wings.   

“Foot injuries are not to be taken lightly,” Underwood said about Goode’s injury.

The Fort Wayne, Ind., native scored his first points of the season against Penn State, burying a corner-three with 10:13 left in the first half. Those were his only points of the game, but depth is always welcome for a tournament team. 

If the Illini are to beat Indiana tomorrow, to show that they’re still serious about that second Big Ten spot, then it’s about stopping Jackson-Davis and maybe a little bit about depth. 


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