After a senior day win over Nebraska, the Illini, once again, reached the all-important .500 mark in league play, improving to 8-8 with two remaining conference showdowns. Illinois closes on the road at Iowa and Ohio State this coming week, before the four-day Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
Whether you believe Illinois locked up their NCAA tournament berth with their win over the Cornhuskers or that the Illini need another win in either the regular season or conference tournament, there's no doubt the Illini still have room to improve in the coming weeks.
In what has been an up-and-down season, the Illini have won six of their last seven contests after their buzzer-beating win over top-ranked Indiana. If Illinois can continue their recent high level of play, there should be no doubt in hearing their name called Selection Sunday, as well as confidence that they can do some damage in the one-and-done tournament.
More often that not, a .500 conference record is necessary to be eligible for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Fortunately for the Illini, they may not need to finish 9-9 in the rugged Big Ten, as an 8-10 league record coupled with a 12-1 non-conference slate could very well be enough to secure their spot in the 68-team field.
Illinois has quality wins like no other, including wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio State and Minnesota. Two "bad" losses to Northwestern and at Purdue certainly don't help Illinois, but in the Big Ten, you're bound to lose a few games that you shouldn't.
If Illinois happens to fall against both Iowa and Ohio State on the road, I still think that a Thursday Big Ten tournament win would be sufficient for their tournament hopes.
Beat either Iowa or Ohio State and they're a lock as well. Lose both regular-season games and an opening-round Big Ten tournament matchup, though, and John Groce and company could be sweating it out.
When Illinois knocked off Indiana at the buzzer last month, few would have guessed that Tyler Griffey would be the hero. Not only did Griffey hit his second game-winning shot of the season, the other coming against Gardner-Webb, but Griffey got himself out of a big-time shooting slump that has helped him regain confidence in his outside stroke.
Sam McLaurin has shown that he's not afraid to mix it up in the paint and makes the hustle plays that Illinois lacked a season ago. Nnanna Egwu has been wildly inconsistent, mostly due to foul trouble, but overall, has been promising in his first season as a starter.
Most of the time, you know what you're getting out of the backcourt from Tracy Abrams, DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul. So this leaves Myke Henry and Joseph Bertrand as the only two remaining players in the rotation, both of whom I believe must step up in March.
Bertrand is the team's fourth guard, first off the bench, bringing an athletic skill set and length to guard multiple positions. Bertrand single-handedly beat Georgia Tech in this year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge with a huge run of his own, highlighted by a fast break, where he nearly jumped over an opposing player.
Henry may have been the difference in Saturday's win against Nebraska, as he brought energy in what was a sluggish game. Henry plays power forward, but prefers stepping out to the perimeter to shoot. There has been speculation of him transferring recently, which I certainly hope is not the case because this sophomore has plenty of potential to help this squad.
Illinois' matchup with Iowa this Tuesday night will go a long way in determining what seed they'll earn in the Big Ten tournament. The reason being, Illinois only faces the Hawkeyes once this season, so the winner automatically receives the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If Illinois knocks off Iowa, a sixth or seventh seed are more than likely. This would mean an opening-round game with Nebraska or Northwestern on Thursday, which should be penciled in as a "W."
On Friday, Illinois could play any of the following: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. Upsetting any of the following teams would add another signature win to their already impressive resume.
If Illinois happens to lose to Iowa, chances are they will drop to the eighth seed. Last season, Illinois played in the eighth- vs. ninth-place game to open the tournament, losing to this same Iowa squad.
If Illinois fell to eighth place this year, they would likely open with Purdue, who may be playing their best basketball of the year after a double-digit win at Wisconsin on Sunday to spoil senior day. This would also pit the Illini against Indiana in the second round, and as much as I'd love for them to beat the Hoosiers again, I don't see Illinois knocking them off twice in one year.
On Saturday, Illinois continued to use their standard eight-man rotation, playing four guards and four bigs over the course of the game, other than a brief cameo for senior Kevin Berardini due to senior day. Sam McLaurin was limited to seven minutes due to an apparent injury, leaving Myke Henry an opportunity to receive 26 minutes of playing time.
Here is a breakdown of how I would like to see the average minutes per game allocated the rest of the season:
In ESPN's Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket (March 1), Illinois matches up with UCLA in an opening-round No. 7 vs. No. 10 game. The winner of this predicted matchup would then go on to match up with the red-hot Georgetown Hoyas in Round 2.
Illinois has proved they can beat anyone, so it wouldn't surprise me at all playing on the tournament's second weekend in the Sweet 16 or even Elite Eight. After all, John Groce's Ohio squad was Sweet 16-bound last March, before falling in overtime to top-seeded North Carolina.
Groce's teams have always valued the NCAA tournament greater than the regular season, which could help this senior class add to having only one March Madness victory in their four-year career.
On the other hand, with a cold shooting night from the outside or lackadaisical start, this team could see a one-and-done tournament run. At this point, expecting the unexpected seems to the theme for both Illinois basketball and college basketball as a whole, making March Madness the single-best sporting event.