Braggin’ Rights are in the bag for the Fighting Illini, winners over rival Missouri for the fourth consecutive season.
But Wednesday night’s game in St. Louis has done what most non-conference games featuring the Illini have done in recent seasons: lost some of the luster.
The Braggin’ Rights game used to be a must-circle date on the calendar because these two squads always provided closely contested games. And while this week’s edition was determined by a single-digit margin, was anyone really jazzed for an Illinois team that hasn’t gone dancing in three straight seasons and a Missouri team that’s fallen even further, winners of just 19 games in the first two seasons under Kim Anderson?
But let’s move on from the perception of that rivalry to the perception of the Illini as they exit the non-conference portion of the schedule and prepare for league play, which starts Tuesday against Maryland.
Illinois should be looking great right now, and by some measures it does. The RPI is a big fan, ranking the Illini at No. 32 in the country. KenPom? Not so much, placing Illinois at No. 65.
The name wins look like this: North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri. All are a part of John Groce’s team’s current six-game winning streak.
But the losses are what matter in this equation. A miserable Thanksgiving week featured three straight losses against Winthrop, West Virginia and Florida State. The latter two were ranked in the AP poll at the time and go No. 7 and No. 26 in the KenPom rankings. The home loss to Winthrop is a killer, the 127th team in the KenPom rankings.
While the ugly week that saw a loss to a Big South team on its home floor and two losses by a combined 43 points seems to have doomed Illinois’ national perception — it’s getting zero votes in the AP and coaches polls, while a similar Big Ten team, Northwestern, is receiving votes in at least the AP (the Cats are 11-2, the Illini are 10-3) — there’s good news coming out of this non-conference season for Illinois.
Compare the Illini’s current standing to where it was coming out of non-conference play in the last three seasons, when it missed the NCAA tournament. Last year, Illinois ranked 130th in non-conference RPI. It ranked 61st and 54th in the two previous seasons, 2014-15 and 2013-14, respectively.
The Illini have a much better head start this season. Of course, the determining factor in whether Groce’s team can break the program’s longest tournament drought since the early 1980s will be how it fares in conference play.
For what it’s worth, Illinois is the third-ranked team in the Big Ten in the RPI. KenPom has the Illini as the 10th ranked team in his rankings, ahead of only Iowa, Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers.
The Illini should feel a lot better about their tournament chances no than they did at this time last season, when they were 8-5. The key? Win a lot more conference games than last year. You can thank Captain Obvious all you want on that one, but a repeat of last season — a grotesque 5-13 Big Ten record — will render any good vibes from the non-conference season completely moot.