For Illini basketball, Big Ten Tournament is their NCAA Tournament

For Illini basketball, Big Ten Tournament is their NCAA Tournament
and for my Illini people, senior night photo

The Illini basketball team has one path to the NCAA Tournament; winning the Big Ten Tournament and receiving the automatic bid. A win over Michigan tomorrow morning would be great for their postseason resume, and give them higher seeding in the NIT. Winning in the semi-finals on Saturday would further show that this Illini basketball team is finishing the season strong (currently 5-1 in their last six road/neutral court games), but that still would not be enough to go dancing.

It's run the table or else.

So essentially this conference tournament is like a qualifier for the NCAA Tournament. If Illinois beats Michigan tomorrow (tip at 11 AM) and wins Saturday, then Sunday literally becomes a March Madness play-in game.

Illinois started the season hot, going 13-2 and earning the #23 spot in the polls. But then they suffered through a brutal 1-10 stretch; which was every bit as rough as that record indicates. Two of those losses, at Northwestern and at home to Purdue, are the albatrosses on the Illini basketball postseason resume. Had they found a way to pull those two out, and everything else held steady, we're talking seeding and regional location for Illinois basketball in the tourney.

On February 9th, Illini basketball Coach John Groce inserted freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn (from Chicago Simeon) into the starting line-up. Including that contest, which Illinois won at Penn State, the team has been 6-3. All with the new starting five.

I asked John Groce about the switch at the Big Ten Tournament media session.

"I've said this numerous times. I've been asked the question obviously a lot. It was something that we had thought about doing a little bit earlier than what we did. I just didn't feel like that either guy at that point in time was accountable enough defensively," Groce answered.

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"So we kept working with them. They were very coachable. They were very teachable. That's okay.  Once we realized that they got it, that light bulb went on. They understood our system and understood the terminology, we knew how talented they were in the offensive end, in terms they can make shots and make place. What that allowed us to do was then take a bench that was entirely compromised of five freshmen and one sophomore and have a little bit more of a blend of experience."

Illini basketball effectively ended the season of their hated rivals, the Indiana Hoosiers with a comfortable 64-54 win today on a neutral court that's a heckuva lot closer to Bloomington, Indiana than it is Chamapaign, Illinois.

Chicago native (Mt. Carmel) Tracy Abrams was the star of the game. The junior Illini guard led the contest in both points (25) and rebounds (7)

Paul M. Banks owns The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An MBA and Fulbright scholar, he’s also a frequent analyst on multiple news talk radio stations. The former NBC Chicago and Washington Times contributor has also been featured on the History Channel. President Obama follows him on Twitter (@paulmbanks) you should too

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