Coming into the basketball season I only had one goal for the Illini: make the NCAA tournament. That was it. After a disappointing football season and a couple disappointing basketball seasons, I wasn't looking for much. Just a reason to enjoy that greatest weekend in sports besides the integrity of my bracket. After the start the Illini got off to, it looked like I'd be getting my wish.
But then 2012 turned to 2013 and brought with it the Big Ten season. A Big Ten season that has slowly and cruelly whittled away our tournament hopes.
How much hope do we have left? Well, Jeff Goodman thinks that with wins over Gonzaga and Butler the Illini will need to manage eight Big Ten wins to get into the dance. I tend to agree with him. We are currently 2-5 in conference play, meaning we'd have to go 6-5 the rest of the way to get there.
Is it possible? Yeah, sure, anything is possible. Particularly when you have Mike LaTulip. But is it probable? Let's take a look at the rest of the schedule and try to figure out where the wins can come from.
-- At Michigan State: Looking at KenPom's projections, the Illini have an 18% chance of winning this game on Thursday night. Personally I don't even think it's that high. LOSS.
-- Versus Wisconsin: We made the Badgers look like world-beaters in Madison, but a lot of that had to do with a slow start simply snowballing out of control. Being in a hostile environment didn't help matters much, either. Since that game Wisconsin hasn't looked nearly as dominant. If the Badgers can lose to Iowa on the road they can lose to Illinois on the road. I wouldn't say we're favorites, but this is a possible win. WIN.
-- Versus Indiana: The only way we win this game is if somebody goes off. If Brandon Paul can drop 40-something and we shoot 50% from three, we can win. We won't, though. LOSS.
-- At Minnesota: Considering Minnesota beat us by 17 at Assembly Hall, I'd say the odds of going into The Barn and winning aren't great. However, Minnesota is going through an Illini-like fall from grace at the moment. If the Gophers get their act together before this game I'd say the Illini have no chance. However, if they don't.... I'm still going with a loss here, but the chances at a win have only increased recently. LOSS.
-- Versus Purdue: Purdue is playing well in the conference, but it's wins have come against the conference weaklings. That includes us. Bring the Boilermakers to Champaign, though, and that changes things. Even KenPom thinks we're winning this game nearly 70% of the time. WIN.
-- At Northwestern: This game could be huge. Not just because of the revenge angle, but because it's a winnable game on the road that we'll need if we want to get to the eight-win mark. I think we get it. WIN.
-- Versus Penn State: A game I'd be totally confident in saying we'll win if not for recent history against Penn State. That being said, Talor Battle is gone and I don't see any buzzer-beaters this season. We're simply better and the game is in Champaign. WIN.
-- At Michigan: I'd say we have no chance here, however, we come in on a three-game win streak apparently. Confidence is high. Maybe somebody gets hot. You never know. LOSS
-- Versus Nebraska: As long as Andre Almeida doesn't eat and or fall on top of our entire team, I'd say we're safe here. WIN.
-- At Iowa: This will be the most important game of the year if things go to plan. If the Illini manage to win every game that I list them as winning above, then this could be that sixth win they need. This could be the game that gets them into the tournament. And while going into Iowa isn't easy, the Hawkeyes have lost five of their last seven and certainly don't look to be much better than the Illini. All that said, I just can't pull the trigger. LOSS.
-- At Ohio State: This won't happen, though we've had some crazy things happen against Ohio State in recent years, and in the win this season we just looked like a bad matchup for the Buckeyes. Of course, this one will be in Columbus. LOSS.
So based on these projections, the Illini could go 5-6 down the stretch to finish 7-11 in the conference and 20-12 overall. A record that probably won't be good enough. However, I think there's more reason for optimism than I've seen and felt myself recently.
We're going through a very tough part of the schedule right now, and have lost a couple of games we really could have used. But there's still a chance. This team is not a top Big Ten team, nor is it a top 25 team, but it's a team capable of winning games with its remaining schedule.
There's not much room for error but if the Illini can win at home -- minus the Indiana game, but I'd take it -- and steal a game on the road, then we could still see them in the tournament this March.
It's not likely, but it's possible. And at this point, I'll take possible.