This week Illinois moved closer to earning priority seating in the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Illini survived their game against Northwestern, then they clowned Minnesota with a highlight reel performance.
They have won seven consecutive games in the rugged Big Ten to make their case to for a No. 2 seed.
Ah, but they face some heavy lifting ahead. After playing at Michigan State Tuesday and hosting Nebraska Thursday, the Illini will close their regular season with an epic road challenge: at No. 21 Wisconsin, at No. 3 Michigan and at No. 4 Ohio State.
So a No. 1 seed remains within reach for them.
Missouri won easily at South Carolina to snap its three-game losing streak and stabilize. After flirting with a Top 4 seed, the surprising Tigers appear headed for a mid-bracket berth in the Big Dance.
That would be quite an accomplishment for a team picked to finish 10th in the Southeastern Conference this season. Mizzou boosters who are somehow disappointed need to check themselves.
SLU fell hard at Dayton and slipped a bit lower on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Billikens have zero margin for error as they close out their abbreviated regular season and head into the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Missouri State maintained momentum in the Missouri Valley Conference and resurgent SEMO earned two more victories in the Ohio Valley Conference.
As for the two SIUEs, Carbondale and Edwardsville, their suffering continued as their difficult seasons wound down.
Here is how the region’s Division I teams stack up:
Illinois (16-5): Coach Brad Underwood has been talking up Ayo Dosunmu as the national Player of the Year. And why not? Look what he did against Minnesota Saturday: He posted a triple-double (19 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Illini exterminated the Gophers 94-63. Kofi Cockburn was great again too, scoring 22 points and grabbing six rebounds. The Illini weren’t great in their previous game, but they were good enough to beat Northwestern at home 73-66 Tuesday. Cockburn (17 points, 10 rebounds) cleaned up at the rim and Dosunmu (13 points, five assists) made the big plays down the stretch, as usual.
Missouri (14-6): The 80-70 loss at Georgia Tuesday wasn’t all bad. Kobe Brown delivered his breakout game with 21 points. Parker Braun blocked shots at one end and demonstrated an uncanny offensive feel at the other, so his development continues apace. Mark Smith went 2-for-4 from three-point range and his makes looked good. But a team with big NCAA Tournament aspirations can’t blow a 13-point lead to a conference also-ran. The Tigers bounced back by smothering South Carolina 93-78 Saturday. Jeremiah Tilmon returned from his two-game absence to score 17 points off the bench. He made every shot he took from the floor and from the free-throw line against the overmatched Gamecocks. Brown (12 points, six rebounds three assists) and Mark Smith (13 points, five rebounds) played well again, giving the Tigers the best offensive balance they’ve had all season.
SLU (11-4): The Billikens earned their second straight blowout victory, this time dismantling La Salle 78-57 on Tuesday at home. How in the world did they lose to the Explorers earlier this season? Anyway, Jordan Goodwin played his usual great all-around game (16 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists). Javonte Perkins scored 19 efficient points while missing just two shots from the floor. That seem to put SLU in a good place before their game on Friday at Dayton . . . and the Billikens flopped. The Flyers raced to a 10-0 lead, then hit the accelerator again late in the first half while building a 43-23 margin. The Billikens became utterly discombobulated. Perkins missed 14-of-16 shots from the floor and Goodwin missed 13-of-16 in the 76-53 loss. SLU is in must-win mode from here on out.
Missouri State (15-5): The Bears extended their winning streak to six games by racing to a 68-53 victory on Wednesday at SIU Carbondale. Missouri State scored the first 14 points of the game and maintained control from there. Gaige Prim overwhelmed the Salukis in the lane with 29 points, 21 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. The Bears are 11-5 in Missouri Valley Conference play and they have clinched a Top 4 seed in for Arch Madness.
SEMO (9-14): The Redhawks earned two of their better victories under first-year coach Brad Korn. First they toppled Austin Peay 86-81 in overtime at home on Tuesday, then they thrashed Eastern Kentucky 94-72 at home on Saturday. Eric Reed Jr. poured in a season-high 22 points against Austin Peay while shooting 5-for-7 from three-point range. Chris Harris had 14 points, four rebounds, six assists and three steals. Harris (18 points, seven assists), Reed (16 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Nana Akenten (15 points, six rebounds) all excelled against Eastern Kentucky. The Redhawks are 7-10 in OVC play this season after posting an 8-28 league mark the previous two seasons. That’s real progress under the new guy.
SIU Carbondale (10-11): The suffering continued unabated for the Salukis this week. Their game against Missouri State got away from them in a hurry. They missed 18 of 24 shots from three-point range, made just 7-for-14 free throws and gathered just four offensive rebounds. The Salukis bounced back against Valparaiso at home, but they suffered an agonizing 66-65 loss. SIU Carbondale cut its deficit to one, then stalled offensively as neither team scored during the final 3 ½ minutes. The Salukis had chance after chance after chance to win, but they couldn’t make one more shot. Life won’t get any easier for the Salukis, since they play Valparaiso Monday before heading to Chicago to face Loyola twice.
SIU Edwardsville (8-14): The Cougars took a hard fall at home against traditional OVC power Murray State, losing 86-57 on Monday. Mike Adewumni scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the defeat. Then they hit the road and suffered lopsided losses at Austin Peay (79-57) on Thursday and Murray State (89-62) on Saturday to extend their losing streak to four games. Adewumni (17 points) and Sidney Wilson (14 points) had productive games at Austin Peay. But in the rematch against Murray State nobody scored more than 10 points.