Can Illinois still make the NCAA Tournament?

The college basketball bubble is going to have some hotly debated teams heading towards Selection Sunday.  Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina and Southern Mississippi will be some interesting teams currently on the bubble to keep an eye on the next few weeks but the most intriguing team isn’t even on the bubble.  Illinois has a good enough resume right now to get in but the problem they have is they are currently 2-7 in the Big Ten with a rough patch of games ahead of them.

Before we get into what lies ahead lets take a deeper look into their overall resume, which is quite good.

Key Wins:  N(Butler, Georgia Tech) R(Gonzaga) H(Ohio State)

Key Losses: H(Northwestern)

Illinois currently stands at 14-8 with a RPI of 48 and 2-7 in the Big Ten.  Only the Northwestern loss at home is troubling but they have just huge wins at Gonzaga and defeated Butler to win Maui and they beat those teams soundly along with Ohio State at home.

Just going off of those games alone the Illini would be a top 4 seed if the tournament started tomorrow but if you factor in their entire body of work they likely don’t get in.  No team with with 5 more losses than wins in conference play has ever received an at large bid.  Even if the Big Ten is considered one of the stronger conferences in recent memory I don’t expect the Selection Committee to place the Illini in with a funny looking conference record.

What does Illinois have to do?

1.  Win the Big Ten tournament

  • It’s in Chicago so that should help but it’s likely they would have to win 4 games in 4 days and that’s nearly impossible against the quality of opponents they would likely draw.

2.  Win at least 5 of their final 9 plus a Big Ten Tournament game

  • This is their most reasonable scenario, winning 5 of 9 would put the Illini at 7-11 entering the conference tournament and give them at a minimum 8 RPI Top 100 wins, possibly more which would be hard for the Selection Committee to ignore.  The 7-11 record would be “good enough” to warrant consideration if you combine everything they accomplished out of conference.  If they ended at 7-11 there would be some outside pressure to at least win one game in the United Center although in my eyes they would have already done enough and the RPI would probably be in the 30′s to support at large inclusion.

This Illinois team might possibly be the best team to finish with double digit conference losses to make the tournament as an at large.  Is there any doubt Brandon Paul and company could go on a Sweet 16 run once in?  Now it’s up to them to take the debate out of the Selection Committee’s hands and pile up enough conference wins between now and the Big Ten tournament to glide comfortably in.

At 2-7 the next two games are Indiana and at Minnesota.  A split would be nice because 2-9 team in conference play making the tournament as an at large is unprecedented.