Phil Pash's Simply Sports: New Illinois task: Pick up pieces

Good thing or bad thing that Illinois lost its regular-season finale at Ohio State March 6?

It takes the pressure of being unbeaten off the Fighting Illini for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments—if there was any pressure.

It could wake them up to the fact they can be had, and from here on, they need a take-no-prisoners mentality … they need to play each game as if it could be their last. If they already don’t know that.

Or do you believe a loss is never a positive?

Maybe the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx was at work. The latest issue shows Dee Brown stretching his jersey forward with both hands, presenting “Illinois” to the world.

Whatever, the dream season will have at least one blemish thanks to a Buckeye sub, Matt Sylvester, hitting a 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds left to hand the top-ranked Illini their first loss 65-64. Illinois was No. 1 in the national polls for 13 consecutive weeks, including four as a unanimous choice.

The Illini had one last chance to win No. 30 in a row with 2.2 seconds left, but Roger Powell Jr.’s hurried 3-pointer from the top of the circle was off the mark.

Though some of the calls looked questionable on TV, the Illini can blame no one but themselves. They squandered a 12-point lead in the second half and didn’t score over the final three minutes.

Simply, when they were expected to dig down and find that extra something else—as they have done other times this season—they didn’t, or couldn’t.

Ohio State (19-12, 8-8 in the Big Ten), a team with problems all year hanging onto the ball, didn’t have a turnover in the second half. The Illini, who had hurdled tough games in loud environments all season, had seven turnovers after halftime. That was huge.

The Illini (29-1, 15-1) were trying to cap the Big Ten’s first unbeaten season in 29 years and become the first team to reach the NCAA Tournament without a loss since UNLV in 1991.

Now it’s pick up the pieces and get on to this week’s Big Ten tourney March 10-13 at Chicago’s United Center. Illinois is top seeded and will play its first game at 11 a.m. March 11. Semifinals will be March 12, with the title game March 13 at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.

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.

If the Illini win the Big Ten tourney, they likely would be a No. 1 seed for one of the four NCAA regionals, maybe No. 1 overall. The start of the NCAA tourney will be the third weekend in March—dates, sites and opponents to be determined March 13.

The Illini closed out their season in the House of Orange with an 84-50 victory over Purdue March 3. Illinois won its 21st in a row at Assembly Hall.

Brown was 8-of-10 from 3-point range and 9-of-12 from the field overall, setting career highs for baskets and attempts from long range and an Assembly Hall record for 3-point baskets.

It was Senior Night as Illinois honored its five departing seniors who are among the most decorated players in Illini basketball history:

Fred Nkemdi has been a walk-on for the past two seasons and has won a pair of Big Ten championships. He will earn a degree in political science this May and plans to enroll in law school following graduation.

Jack Ingram transferred to Illinois after playing his first two seasons at Tulsa. He has won a pair of Big Ten championships as well as a Big Ten tournament title the past three seasons. Ingram will earn a degree in electrical engineering this May.

Powell and Luther Head are wrapping up their careers as four-year letter winners. The Illini have compiled a record of 105-23 (.820), have won three Big Ten championships and a Big Ten Tournament championship during their tenure. Powell will earn a degree in speech communications this May, while Head will complete his coursework in sports management this May and will need only a summer internship to earn his bachelor’s degree.

Nick Smith owns the most Big Ten titles of any player ever to suit up in an Illini basketball uniform. During his five years, the Illini have gone 132-31 (.810), have won four Big Ten championships and a Big Ten Tournament championship. Smith already has earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and will earn his master’s degree in finance this May.

And it’s possible the Illini could lose other players on this year’s team to the NBA.

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