As the only team in the nation with three wins over opponents ranked in the top 10 of the most recent Associated Press poll, the Illini are a lock for the tourney, right? Not so fast my friend, the Illini NCAA Tournament profile will be heavily analyzed and scrutinized between now and selection sunday (which is also St. Patrick's Day).
Especially during championship week, when bids are stolen and bubble teams burst, there will be a lot of media coverage over whether not Illinois deserves a bid. Unless of course, they get totally dominant or completely collapse. That won't happen as they look on pace to meet my preseason expectation of a 9-9 conference record. Minnesota had beaten them four in a row before tonight's 57-53 win in Minneapolis. This was reminiscent of the infamous 1999-2008 streak, when Illinois beat the Gophers 20 in a row. The Illini also ended a 10-game losing streak on the road against ranked Big Ten teams.
Before this week, this Fighting Illini basketball season was like the NBC series “The Office”- it was great and exciting once, but things quickly jumped the shark and we’re all like, “let’s just get this thing over.” With the win over the #1 Hoosiers and taking down the #18 Gophs at their place, it’s like the NBC sitcom “Community”- reinvigorated and full of potential. The Illini started 12-0 often shooting hotter than Alison Brie in a bikini. Then the team went 4-8 and everyone’s FG% went cold; cold like a January breeze off the shores of Lake Superior. It all adds up to a weird, bizarre NCAA Tournament profile. And the results of the Illinois schedule look as erratic and bi-polar as Lindsay Lohan on….whatever Lindsay Lohan is taking these days.
At 17-8, 4-7 in conference Illinois basketball has a real #11 seed in NCAA Tournament resume right now. Most bracketologies (projection of the NCAA Tournament field) have them among the last four in, or just one line above. But that will change a bunch of times up and down between now and Selection Sunday because the Illini have played like a schizophrenic ("split brain") team.
THIS HELPS: RPI 34, SOS 7 (not including the win in Minny) 5-3 vs RPI top 25. They have five big signature wins over #1 Indiana Hoosiers at #8 Gonzaga Bulldogs #10 Ohio State Buckeyes #14 Butler Bulldogs (neutral court). at #18 Minnesota.
THIS COULD GO EITHER WAY: record vs. RPI top 100 7-7
Illinois faces some tough tests when they visit the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Another W would cement Illinois into the tournament. The team also needs to take care of business against Purdue, Northwestern, Penn State, the Cornhuskers and Hawkeyes. If they can finish with an 8-10 record in the Big Ten and overall 21-11 should be enough; but only because the tournament expanded to 68. Anything less than that requires at least one, and probably 2 victories in the BTT. See you at the Madhouse on Madison!
A Fulbright scholar, published author and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; he’s also a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.