The Big 12 has another marquee game this week, as the Texas Longhorns travel to Madison Square Garden to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini in the semifinals of the 2k Sports Classic. This could be one of the most interesting games of the season. Both teams are in the top 25; both teams are loaded with talent; and--most importantly--no one really knows what to do with either one.
Texas is coming off a very disappointing season last year, as they tumbled from tops in the nation to unranked and finally out of the NCAA tournament in the first round. That Texas team had talent: Avery Bradley, Dexter Pittman, and Damion James were all drafted. However, what it had in talent it cost itself in chemistry: Rick Barnes never could decide on a point guard; no one lived up to his potential; and the team struggled with communication (and foul shots) on both ends of the floor.
In the same vein, Illinois is coming off its own disappointing season. The Illini began the season ranked in the top 25, but quickly dropped two straight games and into the NIT field. The Illini were a bubble team, but ended up being left out for their bad losses (they did have some marquee wins). The Illini lost to eventual NIT champion Dayton in the quarterfinals.
Both teams sport top 15 recruiting classes. The Illini class is led by McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond, while Texas has gotten some major production out of McDonald's All-Americans Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph (I was shocked to find Joseph leads the team in minutes right now, though he's struggled shooting the ball).
Where the teams begin to part ways is on season prognosis. The Longhorns are picked as a low top 25 team that, if they can get it together, should have an impact on the Big 12 race. The Illini are a hot Final Four sleeper team that is expected to contend in a talented Big 10. There's not denying that Illinois returns more than Texas: they have all five starters back. But we just saw a Virginia Tech team with all five starters back come into Manhattan and get thrown around by a Kansas State team without Curtis Kelly or, for the most part, Jacob Pullen. The fact of the matter is that Illinois and Virginia Tech are very similar teams: both were borderline NCAA teams with decent wins (Illinois had more bad losses and Virginia Tech had more cream-puffs in their schedule) that return five players. Illinois has certainly played better than the Hokies so far, but I'm not ready to crown them Big 10 champions either.
I think in the end we're dealing with a Longhorn team that's a little underrated (largely deserved after last season's less-than-stellar performance) and an Illini team that's a little overrated. But I expect the two teams to be fairly equal, which should make this a real game (especially on a neutral site). This should be a real testament to how far each team has come (and a good judge of how far each team is capable of going).
So don't forget to switch over to ESPNU tonight at 8:00 p.m. Central.