It's still too early to start making nonrefundable NCAA tournament plans. Even with a 10-1 start, Illinois needs to prove itself against tougher competition, and that won't be easy because the Big Ten is looking much deeper.
Everybody knows about Michigan State and Purdue. And Wisconsin and Ohio State aren't far behind, although the Buckeyes' loss of Todd Lighty for at least six weeks is a major blow. Minnesota and Michigan, which both have posted quality wins amid strong starts, have shown the most after the league's top four. And Penn State figures to be more competitive this year. So the Illini have their work cut out to earn a spot in the Big Dance. particularly because Iowa and Northwestern, who also are improved, are their single plays.
But one thing Illinois has going for it this year is unity.
``We have a lot better chemistry this year than last year. Nobody's arguing or fighting with the coach,'' said Calvin Brock, the latest member of the Illini family to allude to the rift between Bruce Weber and Shaun Pruitt, not to mention the uncertainty created by Brian Randle's chronic injuries. ``Everybody's trying to play hard. Everybody knows their role and is staying within themselves. It's a good start for us. Now we just have to continue.''
Considering all the recruiting breakthroughs Weber has made in the last year or so, there's a nice aura around a program that also had to weather the Jamar Smith and Eric Gordon setbacks. No matter what happens this year, it appears that the Illini cupboard will be well stocked for the next few years. And the addition of Alex Legion makes an already solid sophomore core look even more intriguing in terms of this season.