Here come the Illini. Back again. Rolling like thunder. Get the heck out of their way or get run over. Even without point guard Andre Curbelo, this is one dangerous team.
Oh, and they’re fifth among Big Ten teams in the new AP Top 25 poll, which came out Monday.
Fifth. Fifth? Really?
If the Illini (11-3) are truly the fifth-best team in a league that hasn’t been quite its best self this season, then why are we even talking about them? Never mind the question. They’re a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team, which is nice by itself, and they still have a high ceiling. They could win the Big Ten. They could rise to the No. 1 seed line again. Short of that, they could still move well up the Top 25 ladder — and I expect they will.
Illinois checks in at No. 25, one false move from returning to “others receiving votes” territory. But I have them at No. 17 — behind Purdue (9), Michigan State (11) and Wisconsin (14) and ahead of Ohio State (21) — on my ballot. The Illini and Spartans are off to 4-0 starts in league play. The Badgers are coming off a 3-0 week that included a giant win on the road against the Boilermakers.
Kofi Cockburn and Co. play Nebraska (away) and Michigan (home) this week before hosting Purdue next Monday. Take care of the Huskers and the Wolverines and, man, just imagine what State Farm Center will be like with the Boilers in the house. No joke: If the Illini win their next three games, they could be all the way up in the top 10.
AP Top 25
1. Baylor, 2. Gonzaga, 3. UCLA, 4. Auburn, 5. USC, 6. Arizona, 7. Purdue, 8. Duke, 9. Kansas, 10. Michigan State, 11. Houston, 12. LSU, 13. Wisconsin, 14. Villanova, 15. Iowa State, 16. Ohio State, 17. Xavier, 18. Kentucky, 19. Texas Tech, 20. Seton Hall, 21. Texas, 22. Tennessee, 23. Providence, 24. Alabama, 25. Illinois.
(Click here to see the poll in more complete list form.)
1. Baylor, 2. Arizona, 3. Gonzaga, 4. UCLA, 5. Auburn, 6. Duke, 7. Kansas, 8. USC, 9. Purdue, 10. Houston, 11. Michigan State, 12. LSU, 13. Iowa State, 14. Wisconsin, 15. Xavier, 16. Kentucky, 17. Illinois, 18. Oklahoma, 19. Texas Tech, 20. Texas, 21. Ohio State, 22. Providence, 23. Alabama, 24. Loyola, 25. Miami.
(Click here and then on “all voters” to see each voter’s individual ballot.)
o Disappointingly, Purdue (13-2) has split its first four Big Ten games. Some are calling the Boilers overrated now, but I don’t buy it. They still have a killer pair of low-post threats, a strong bench and a lottery pick in Jaden Ivey. Beating them — anywhere — is going to be a major chore for any opponent.
o For a league that generally gets little respect, the Pac-12 has crazy-good quality at the top. We know what UCLA can do. Illinois fans know how big-time Arizona is. And USC just won’t lose.
o I was blown away by how good Alabama looked weeks back in its win against Gonzaga in Seattle. But this team is frustratingly inconsistent. Losing at Missouri? That’s just weird. Maybe Nick Saban will get in Nate Oats’ face about it after returning to campus from Indianapolis. No, not really.
o Auburn is the team to beat in the SEC — right now, anyway — and the Tigers are ridiculously fun to watch. LSU is the biggest climber in the poll, though, up from 21 last week to 12 in the main poll and from 25 to 12 on my ballot. Speaking of Tigers.
o My ballot crashers: Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Loyola Ramblers. Also the Miami Hurricanes, who have won nine straight and just beat Duke on the road. But mainly the Ramblers.