With a 13-6 overall record, including a 2-4 clip in the Big Ten, Illinois has gone from NCAA Tournament lock to bubble team on the outside looking in less than a two week span. After starting out 2-0 in league play, with wins over Indiana and Penn State, the Illini dropped a pair of road battles at Wisconsin and Northwestern, before most recently losing home contests to Purdue and Michigan State.
Last year's Illini squad entered the NCAA Tournament as a seventh seed, despite only compiling an 8-10 conference record. Last year's Fighting Illini only dropped one nonconference game, compared to this squad's two losses prior to B1G play tipping off. While an 8-10 mark could get the Fighting Illini back into the Big Dance, a .500 mark of 9-9 would all but secure their spot in the 68 team field.
Here's a look at Illinois' remaining 12 games, not including the Big Ten Tournament, where Illinois could pad their resume with an additional win or two.
@ Ohio State-L
@ Penn State-W
vs. Ohio State-W
@ Michigan State-L
First things first, Illinois must do a better job of protecting home court. Unfortunately for them, four of the team's nine conference home games occurred during winter break, so not nearly as many students were present as school goes back into session this Tuesday.
Though four of Illinois' five remaining home matchups come against top tier Big Ten teams, Illinois will have a shot in every game. Wisconsin, who dismantled Illinois last week, is the only one of the five games that I see going in the visitors favor, as the Badgers have had U of I's number recently.
On the road, Illinois would then need to put together a 3-4 mark. The Fighting Illini have back-to-back trips to Penn State and Nebraska in February. Neither the Nittany Lions or Cornhuskers have won a conference game to date and Illinois doesn't want to become their first victim.
Road trips to Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa do not appear winnable at this point, despite my prediction of Illinois knocking off both the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes at the State Farm Center. Road wins are tough to come by in the Big Ten, especially when you are the inferior team.
This leaves John Groce's squad needing to win at either Indiana or Minnesota. Illinois has already beaten IU, albeit in overtime on their home floor. However, the Hoosiers proved vulnerable in a home loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
Illinois has won at Minnesota's Barn twice in the past three years, with the lone loss coming in overtime. The Illini and Golden Gophers only meet once this season. Both Indiana and Minnesota are also regarded as bubble teams for March Madness, making the results of those contests even more meaningful.
If all goes well and Illinois can put together a 9-9 conference slate, they should finish in the middle of the Big Ten standings, somewhere between sixth and eighth most likely. A Thursday win at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, against a lower tier team, would then give the Illini an extra win. In Friday's quarterfinal matchup, Illinois would then face a top tier B1G squad, with a perfect opportunity to add one last quality win.
Illinois was in a similar predicament at this time last season, before Tyler Griffey's game-winning layup to beat top-ranked Indiana turned their season around, ending in a heartbreaking last-minute loss to second-seeded Miami. Though only three players returned from last year's squad, the leadership of Groce and talent on this roster is more than enough to get back into the Big Dance.