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Could the Illini have been NCAA Tourney bound?

Was Illinois really that far off in Underwood’s first year?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back on the season, a 14-18 record (4-15 Big Ten), it’s easy to say this season was a disappointment, the team threw in the towel, Illinois athletics are slipping further into the deep pit of mediocrity and abyss, and some have even called for Whitman and Underwood’s heads.

But just how far away was this team from being successful? Not as far as some might think. Let’s take a look at some of the losses from last season, starting with the first.

Nov. 28, 2017 - at Wake Forest (80-73)

The Illini held a 27-20 lead with roughly eight minutes remaining in the first half. Cue one of the first scoring droughts of the season, this one lasting almost five and a half minutes. The Demon Deacons went into the break holding a 35-34 lead, still anyone’s game.

Wake Forest used an early second half run to increase their lead to ten, but the Illini clawed their way back and cut the deficit to one, 56-55. That would be as close as Illinois would get to taking back the lead, however. A strong performance from the field (51 percent, 47 percent from three) for Wake combined with 19 Illinois turnovers was too much to overcome.

Who got Ayo, though?

Winnable Losses: 1

Dec. 1, 2017 - at Northwestern (72-68 OT)

Due to scheduling conflicts at Madison Square Garden, Big Ten teams were forced to start their conference schedule with a couple games four weeks prior to the normal start of conference play. This is a game that Illinois led at half, and had multiple opportunities to win. The Illini turned the ball over 19 times for the second game in a row and converted on just three of 18 attempts from deep.

Winnable Losses: 2

Dec. 3, 2017 - vs. Maryland (92-91 OT)

It was a tale of two halves for both teams. Maryland jumped out to a 45-26 first-half lead on 73 percent shooting from the floor. But the tables completely turned in the second as the Illini took a 74-73 lead with just under two minutes remaining.

Some of you might remember this game as the one where Illinois failed to inbound the ball to seal it. Instead, Maryland got the ball under their basket, and a failed box out allowed Bruno Fernando to tip in the game-tying bucket. Then, Mark Alstork fouled Anthony Cowan at the end of overtime, and Cowan sank the game-winning free throw.

Winnable Losses: 3

Dec. 10, 2017 - at UNLV (89-82)

Thirty-six: the number of fouls committed by the Illini in this matchup, an Illinois program record.

UNLV was 33-for-48 from the line. Anytime that a team gets almost 50 “gimmes”, you can expect them to capitalize and put the game out of reach. Leron Black also suffered an injury early on in this one, playing just 12 minutes. But, despite being outshot by 33 free throws and losing its best player, Illinois had every chance to win this one as well.

Winnable Losses: 4

Dec. 16, 2017 - vs. New Mexico State (74-69)

Despite being down 12 at half, the Illini used a strong second half to jump back into the game and take the lead. Leron’s 17 second-half points were part of a 22-5 run that Illinois used to regain a 48-43 edge over the Aggies. However, Brad Underwood’s squad was unable to hold the advantage and suffered another defeat.

Winnable Losses: 5

Jan. 3 - at Minnesota (77-67)

A slow start, one of 19 from the field, was the difference in this one. The Illini fell behind early, and it ended up being too much to overcome.

With Leron Black playing just five first-half minutes due to foul trouble, this game looked as if it was put away before the midpoint. A second-half run cut the deficit to four and looked poised to take over. That would be as close as the Illini got, as Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy led the Gophers to victory.

But did you see how Minnesota ended up this season? Not good.

Winnable Losses: 6

Jan. 6 - at Michigan (79-69)

Early foul trouble for Michigan’s Charles Matthews and a hot start for Illinois gave the Illini a 34-31 halftime advantage. Turnovers and cold shooting from three were the difference in this one, though.

Winnable Losses: 7

Jan. 11 - vs. Iowa (104-97 OT)

Once again, a great start for Illinois, including runs of 13-0 and 10-0, saw the team leading 54-41. A hot second half for Iowa allowed them to take the lead with a couple minutes remaining.

Trent Frazier marched down the floor with time expiring and hit the game-tying three-pointer to send it to overtime. Just like the overtimes before, this one wasn’t kind to the Illini and Iowa stole this one from the team at home.

Winnable Losses: 8

Jan. 15 - at Nebraska (64-63)

Probably one of the truest heartbreaks of the season came on the road against Nebraska. It was a back-and-forth affair most of the night, one that saw the Illini coming out on the losing end once again.

Michael Finke was fouled on a three with eight seconds left and converted the four-point play. Then Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. hit a three to seal it for the Cornhuskers with just 0.3 seconds left.

Winnable Losses: 9

The first nine losses of the season amount for half of the total and almost half of the Big Ten losses for this Illini team. They had a chance to win every single one of these, and the probability that they dropped them all has to be somewhere between astronomical and impossible.

There were other winnable games after these including Ohio State on the road, Wisconsin at home, at Indiana and Purdue at home. Those four losses were all by 10 points or fewer and probably bumps the winnable loss number up to the 13.

I’m not saying that this team should be 27-5 and just wrapping up a Big Ten Championship campaign. But looking back, it’s not crazy to think that some of the preseason predictions that had this team right at or around 20 wins weren’t that far-fetched. That’s only six more wins out of 13 games that this team had a chance to take.

At 20ish wins, hovering just around or above .500 in conference, and add in a decent run in the Big Ten Tournament, this season would have this team in the NCAA tournament for the first time in over four years.

Alas, this is all hypothetical, and it’s easy to look back on games and ponder “what if?” A play here, a play there, a scoring drought, a cold start, an inbounds play. There’s a lot of factors that played into this season being a disappointment: a combination of a first-year head coach, inexperienced upperclassmen and sheer bad luck.

Some may find solace in this by knowing that the team wasn’t too far away, the proof is in the pudding. But, an already broken fanbase, some have already lost faith in the Underwood tenure.

Is a 20-12 record really that unrealistic?