Illini Outlast Northwestern. But Both Have a Long Way to Go.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili goes to the hoop against Dererk Pardon

It was a fun night. But Illinois, NU still far from NCAA Big Dance contestants.

An Illini friend of mine told me his Illini son bought a ticket to Illinois’ Big Ten tournament opener against Northwestern for $3.

I don’t know if he used a $3 bill. But there was nothing phony about this late-night meeting between tail-enders.

Playing like they didn’t want their seasons to end—even if their fans did—No. 11 Illinois and No. 14 Northwestern went to overtime before the Illini pulled out a surprisingly entertaining 74-69 win.

For Illinois, which has gone 8-8 since a brutal 4-12 start, there is a glimmer of hope for the future. Heck, ticket prices soared 67 percent—to $5—for its second-round meeting with Iowa on Thursday night.

A really intense schedule—the nation’s third-hardest according to—put the Illini in an early hole. Playing Gonzaga, Iowa State and Xavier in Maui was a tough deal for a young team. So was a meeting with Georgetown and a trip to Notre Dame, even if they weren’t up to their usual standards.

But in Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Underwood brought in two freshman studs who have learned by doing. If Dosunmu, a 6-5 guard from Chicago, ignores the lure of entering the NBA draft, he’ll be even more of a force next year.

A graceful 6-9, 235-pound native of Georgia—the one near Russia—Bezhanishvili is fierce in the paint. He had 26 points on 12-of-15 shooting against Northwestern.

And with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ graduating, Giorgi will inherit Happ’s mantle of ``Fred Astaire of the Big Ten.'' Just watch his footwork around the basket and you will know what I mean.

It’s no accident. Bezhanishvili competed in classical dance when he was a youngster, and placed second in a national competition when he was 10.

Good luck to scribes typing ``Ayo Dosunmu’’ and ``Giorgi Bezhanishvili’’ on deadline. But between the syllabic duo and perimeter players including Trent Frazier, Illinois figures to be more competitive next year—if Underwood can find some size to go with Giorgi.

The Illini might even end an NCAA drought that will extend to a ridiculous six seasons unless they catch lightning in a bottle in Chicago for the rest of the week.

Northwestern has more work to do. Much more. Two years ago, when they made their first-ever NCAA appearance and narrowly missed taking down No. 1 seeded Gonzaga in the second round, the world seemed to be at the Wildcats’ paws.

They were a young team. NU was doing a gut-rehab on their arena. And Chris Collins, who had been a Bulls ballboy when his father Doug was coaching a young Michael Jordan, was looking like a prodigal son/golden boy.

The question then was: Can Northwestern keep Chris Collins?

But there was trouble ahead. Forced from their home floor last season due to the renovation, and apparently taking the accolades and assumptions of continued success too seriously, the Cats reverted to form last season.

Forced to play without a point guard this season when Jordan Lathon failed to be admitted to school, Northwestern sank to the bottom of the Big Ten.

With injured senior scorer Vic Law sitting on the bench as big man Dererk Pardon finished his NU career, the last links to the NCAA tournament breakthrough are gone.

Collins’ embrace of Pardon at the end of the Illinois game was heartwarming.

From being a hot commodity, Collins now faces the difficult task of building a roster capable of competing in the Big Ten.

Underwood has more pieces in place, no question. But in a league that has excellent depth behind its elite programs, nothing is guaranteed for the two schools from the Land of Lincoln.

With DePaul bowing to St. John's in the Big East, Missouri Valley tourney champion Bradley will be the state's only Big Dance contestant. That's not enough to satisfy fans who are willing to pay much more than $3 if the chance for success is there.