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December 1, 2010, 10:52 AM ET
Best Illinois team since 2006, not 2005

by John Gasaway

After Minnesota’s ostentatiously extreme collapse on defense against Virginia on Monday night dug the Big Ten into an 0-1 hole, the conference staged an impressive comeback last night and now leads the ACC/Big Ten Challenge by a 4-2 margin. Wins by Illinois (at home over North Carolina), Ohio State (at Florida State), and Northwestern (at home over Georgia Tech) were expected. The victory posted by putatively rebuilding Michigan at Clemson was more of a surprise. And Wake Forest’s three-point win at home over Iowa falls under the heading of a toss-up.

Tonight the Big Ten needs just two wins to secure its second consecutive (and second ever) Challenge cup or crown or horcrux or whatever it is exactly that passes between Jim Delany and John Swofford. Maybe Wisconsin, which lost to Notre Dame by seven in Orlando on Sunday, will parlay that Kohl Center magic into a win over an impressively athletic NC State team that’ll be playing without Tracy Smith. Maybe Penn State can defend its home court against Maryland. Or, who knows, maybe a Michigan-style surprise can be sprung by Indiana (at Boston College), Purdue (at Virginia Tech), or even Michigan State (at Duke–though to be sure that would be one tall order). On the one hand the Big Ten could have this thing in the bag by 9:30 Eastern if the Badgers and Hoosiers both win. On the other hand it could go right down to the wire with the outcome being decided in Cameron Indoor sometime close to midnight.

As we settle in for what promises to be a really good night of hoops, though, I have an edict to issue. (No, it’s not about rebound margin. Relax.) Henceforth everyone will stop saying that this year’s 7-1 Illinois team is the best Illini squad we’ve seen since the 2005 Final Four team led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. That may turn out to be the case, but we’re not there yet. First Bruce Weber’s team has to show it’s as good as the now-forgotten 2006 team, one that appeared to be gliding toward a Sweet 16 showdown with Connecticut until a ferocious case of the yips midway through the second half of its second-round game against Brandon Roy and Washington sealed its doom.

Let’s look at some recent history in Champaign:

From sublime to supine  
Illinois per-possession scoring margin, Big Ten games only

       Margin
2005   +0.24
2006   +0.10
2007   +0.03
2008    0.00
2009   +0.05
2010   -0.01

The 2005 team was clearly one of the most dominant major-conference teams of the decade. The paradox of really dominant teams, though, is that they screw up how we perceive other teams. And, sure enough, that dominant Illinois team inflicted tremendous perceptual damage upon both Michigan State in 2005 and indeed the Illini themselves in 2006.

In 2005 the Spartans had Paul Davis, Alan Anderson, Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, and as-yet unassertive freshman Drew Neitzel. Viewed purely on their own merits they were unquestionably one of the best five teams the Big Ten has produced in recent years, outscoring the conference by a notably robust 0.18 points per trip. Their only problem was that they had this once-in-a-generation thing called Illinois 2005 in their league. Everyone, up to and including Tom Izzo, was always yelling at that MSU team for alleged underperformance (they went 13-3), lack of “toughness,” etc. It was all very strange and, except for the part where State lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to Iowa, it was pretty much all Illinois’ fault.

Fast forward to 2006 and the same exact yelling was visited upon the Illini themselves. Williams and Head (and Roger Powell) were gone, but Dee Brown was still there. So what was the problem? In fact that 2006 group was a really good team. Not great by any means, but really good. Illinois fans this season should dance in the streets if Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and company are able to outscore the Big Ten by 0.10 points per trip. It will mean the Illini have clear NCAA second-weekend potential, something they’ve clearly lacked since 2006.    

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