Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Illini have outright Big 10 title

It’s over. Illinois has the Big Ten basketball championship outright. Though remote, Michigan State had a chance to tie—until Feb. 27.

Then the Spartans lost to Indiana in overtime 78-74. That gave Michigan State (20-5) an 11-3 Big Ten mark. Illinois is 14-0 with two games left. Even if the Fighting Illini lose both, they’ll finish 14-2. The best the Spartans can do is 13-3. It’s over.

Illinois’ two remaining regular-season games are March 3 vs. Purdue in the House of Orange (ESPN2) or at Ohio State March 6 (CBS). (Earlier, I incorrectly reported the Purdue game would be March 1).

Said Illini coach Bruce Weber: “We win two more games, we go undefeated in the regular season which only one other team has done in the Big Ten. Another outright title, first back-to-back titles (for Illinois) since 1951-52. There’s a lot of things on the line, and I hope it keeps them motivated.’’

Top-ranked and unbeaten Illinois’ 84-48 win over Northwestern Feb. 23 in the House of Orange guaranteed the Fighting Illini at least a share of the Big Ten title for the fourth time in five seasons.

It is the 17th conference championship in school history and the fourth time the Illini have won back-to-back league titles. Weber becomes the fourth Big Ten coach to lead his team to league titles in his first two years at the helm.

Illinois improved to 28-0 on the season, the third-best undefeated record in Big Ten history. The Illini now have won 24 straight Big Ten games and are three wins away from tying the school record for victories in a season.

The Illini also increased their winning streak at Assembly Hall to 20 games, and improved to 65-2 (.970) there over the last five seasons. Illinois is 77-3 (.962) at home over the last six seasons.

Dee Brown finished with 20 points, his second 20-point game this season and 11th for his career. Brown rose to third all-time on the career 3-pointers made list. He passed Kiwane Garris (189) and Sean Harrington (191), finishing the game with six and 194 in his career.

The Illini continued their ascent up the all-time scoring list. With his 20 points, Brown jumped to No. 23 with 1,210 career points and is tied with Audie Matthews. Luther Head’s 14 points give him 1,132 career points, jumping three spots to No. 29 all-time. Deron Williams rose two spots to 41st all-time with his 13 points and 972 for his career.

Roger Powell Jr. finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, his second double-double this season and fourth of his career.

In the Associated Press ratings, Illinois was No. 1 for the 12th straight week, and a unanimous choice for the fourth consecutive poll. The Illini received all 72 first-place votes from the national media panel.

After the regular season, the Big Ten tourney will be March 10-13 at Chicago’s United Center, and the start of the NCAA tourney will be the third weekend in March—dates, sites and opponents to be determined.

All 11 teams participate in the Big Ten tourney with the winner receiving the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The team that finishes atop the regular-season standings is the Big Ten champion.

The Big Ten tourney bracket will be seeded according to the final regular-season standings with the league champion earning the top seed and the top five finishers receiving first-round byes. Illinois already is assured of the top seed, regardless.

If the Illini win the Big Ten tourney, they likely would be a No. 1 seed for one of the four NCAA regionals, probably No. 1 overall.

The Big Ten office said three of the five Chicago sessions are sold out. Limited single-session tickets for the first-round games (session 1) and the two quarterfinals (session 3) still are available. Standing-room only tickets for sessions 2, 4 and 5 are on sale to the general public at the United Center box office, Ticketmaster outlets, or by calling Ticketmaster at (312) 559-1212.

Chicago hosted the Big Ten event in its first four years of existence. Beginning in 2002, the tournament has rotated between Indianapolis and Chicago, with the 2007 event slated to return to the United Center for the 10th annual tourney. In its first seven years, the Big Ten tourney has welcomed more than 670,000 fans and issued more than 4,200 media credentials.

Six different schools have been Big Ten tournament champions, with Michigan State claiming the honor twice (1999, 2000), along with triumphs by Michigan (1998), Iowa (2001), Ohio State (2002), Illinois (2003) and Wisconsin (2004).

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