For the second consecutive season, the Illini find themselves in the 8-9 game of the Big Ten Tournament. This year, they're the 9-seed.
1. Michigan Wolverines
2. Wisconsin Badgers
3. Michigan St. Spartans
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
5. Ohio St. Buckeyes
6. Iowa Hawkeyes
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers
8. Indiana Hoosiers
9. Illinois Fighting Illini
10. Penn St. Nittany Lions
11. Northwestern Wildcats
12. Purdue Boilermakers.
The masses conceded this season a month ago, but lo and behold, here we stand, hopeful. Our half of the bracket gives us a chance.
At season's beginning, the fans set the Illini out on a "Road to 20 wins," assuming that if the Illini hit that mark, they'd have more than a decent shot at an At-large bid. "Twenty" sounded as correct then as it does now. It's an aesthetic number. It's round and full of achievement and attainable. Twenty wins, I told myself. The Illini easily could reach twenty wins.
But picking wins out of an unplayed schedule is the devil's game. He makes you think you can win at Northwestern, or home against Purdue, or once in the span of six weeks. The devil consistently plays Illinois the fool, and oftentimes (2009, 2011), we allow it.
Other times, however (2013), the team gets the upper hand. They win games they shouldn't. Last year, it was against Indiana and Gonzaga. This year, it's at Michigan State and at Iowa. Can 2014 be 2013?
Yes. It can. This Big Ten Tournament schedule blazes that trail.
The continued, perseverant Road to 20 goes through Indiana and Michigan--if both of those games are won, then the Illini have a chance at an At-large bid. It's true.
Indiana is more than beatable, as evident by us and the rest of the Big Ten beating them. There's magic in their failure though because amazingly, that'd still count as a quality Illini win. It'd take us to 19-13 with seven wins in the RPI top 100. More importantly, it'd set up the hump game.
Get over the game, land on the bubble. That game is against Michigan.
Michigan earned the No. 1 seed in the B1G Tournament by winning every damn game they played, sans three outliers. They carry both the conference's most impressive resume and most outstanding player, Nik Stauskas. Looking past a bizarre early season loss to Charlotte, Michigan reps 23 victories, three losses to great teams (Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin), two losses to good teams (Iowa and Iowa State), and final loss to Indiana.
Michigan impresses the committee. A win against them would pass that impression along to us, and the committee would talk. They'd say, "What do we think of Illinois?" and there would be competing opinions. They'd look at the field. Then they'd look at Illinois. Then back at the field. Then back at Illinois.
I'm saying there's a chance.
These numbers are assuming we beat Indiana, beat Michigan, and lose in the semifinals, likely to Ohio State. Hell, I'd say we could win that game too, but I'm already five steps ahead of myself and won't take another leap. Win, Win, Loss--that's the situation here.
OVERALL RECORD: 20-14
CONFERENCE RECORD: 9-12
ROAD RECORD: 7-7
WINS VS. RPI TOP 50: 5
WINS VS. RPI TOP 100: 8
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE: ~20
I'm expecting more doubters than believers for this projection, but allow me these two points:
1) Without a win versus Michigan, the Selection Committee doesn't so much as sniff the name Illinois. The Michigan win is necessary.
2) A win against Michigan would set up a semi-final matchup with either Nebraska or Ohio State (or Purdue). No matter who it is, that's a winnable game.
Beat Indiana and we're thinking. Beat Michigan and we're talking. But beat Indiana first.