The University of Illinois men's basketball team has had a very uneven season. After starting the season with four-straight wins, the veteran squad immediately went on a three-game losing streak against some admittedly tough competition. Still, the Fighting Illini managed an early recovery by winning their next six games to finish the non-conference portion of their schedule with NCAA Tournament hopes still intact. But everything has changed since the start of Big Ten play. Illinois is currently riding a two-game losing streak ahead of their Saturday matchup against the Michigan Wolverines, and that elusive March Madness bid is quickly slipping away.
The latest losing streak began when the Orange and Blue dropped a home contest to the Maryland Terrapins. Illinois dominated early in the game to take a five-point lead into the locker room, but they couldn’t keep up the good play in the second half. The Fighting Illini consistently missed open shots and made too many turnovers, resulting in the Terrapins taking control after yet another long scoring drought. The sloppy play caused the Illini to lose 62-56.
Three days later, the Fighting Illini had an extremely tough test on the road against the No. 17 Purdue Boilermakers. Despite only committing three turnovers in the whole game, Illinois never had a chance to win this game. John Groce’s team simply had no way to stop Purdue’s talented front court in the paint, and the night was essentially over within the first handful of minutes. The inability to make stops on defense and failure to create offense on a consistent basis led to Illinois getting blown out 91-68.
This streak gives Illinois a lackluster 12-7 overall record on the season, and furthermore, they’ve only managed to win two of their first six games in the Big Ten. In fact, the only team with a worse conference record than Illinois are the winless Rutgers Scarlet Knights — that’s not company you want to keep in basketball. Despite the recent tough stretch, though, the Fighting Illini still may have a shot at the postseason.
It’ll take some work to overcome these early-season woes, but the parody within the conference could very well play to Illinois’ advantage. Any team can win on any night. The Big Ten will likely get at least seven or eight teams into the NCAA Tournament with Maryland, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Northwestern (!!) already well on their way locking up bids; that leaves about four spots up for grabs.
If Illinois can somehow finish the season by winning eight of their last twelve games, they’ll absolutely have a shot to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. With that said, losing to an inferior team at any point the rest of the way will essentially kill any March hopes. This means that, starting with this afternoon’s game against the Wolverines, Illinois must take care of business against middle-tier teams while capturing an upset or two in the process. It may not be entirely probable, but Malcolm Hill and the Fighting Illini have a chance to right the ship.