Memphis vs Illinois: Which Team Will Make the NCAA Tournament?

Erik Schultz@eschultz530Correspondent IFebruary 24, 2011

This article compares two teams currently on the NCAA tournament bubble with comparable RPI and overall credentials.  Think of it as a virtual play-in game; two teams who could potentially meet in a First Four matchup.

Memphis (21-7, 9-4 C-USA); RPI:  34, SOS:  47

Illinois (17-11, 7-8 Big Ten); RPI:  36, SOS:  14

Common opponents:  Gonzaga (both MEM and ILL won)

Why Memphis Gets In

In an atypical year for Conference USA—Memphis hasn’t dominated the league—there are currently three teams tied at the top of the league, with two more trailing by just a half game.  Memphis is one of the three tied at the top, along with UAB and Southern Miss, even at 9-4. 

Memphis has actually beaten both UAB and Southern Miss twice.  Each of those teams is currently in the RPI Top 50.  Because of those four wins, Memphis should be first in the hierarchy when it comes to choosing between the other bubble teams from the conference.

Perhaps the biggest win of the season for Memphis, however, came earlier this month at Gonzaga.  The rare late-season non-conference game proved to be incredibly beneficial for the Tigers.  It may very likely be the win that puts them in the tourney.

Overall, Memphis is a solid 4-3 against the Top 50.  The three losses are to Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee—all teams who have proven they can beat anybody in the country and make a deep run in the tournament. 

Why Memphis Is Left Out

In the three games against Kansas, Georgetown and Tennessee, Memphis lost by an average of 17 points.  The game at Tennessee—a 20 point loss—could have been 30 or more.  That’s against a team who has 11 losses this year.  Against Kansas and Georgetown, the Tigers were competitive into the second half, but were ultimately worn down by clearly superior teams. 

Aside from the Gonzaga win—who is barely a Top 75 RPI team at this point—there are no other real wins of note for Memphis on their non-conference schedule.   In addition, some of the wins they do have over sub-100 RPI teams have been unnecessarily close.  They beat Austin Peay by only two; Arkansas State by seven; Tennessee State by five (in OT); and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (285 RPI) by just seven.  All those games were of course at home. 

The unimpressive wins mentioned indicate that Memphis may struggle to get mentally prepared to face teams they are more talented than.  Proof of that comes in some of their losses in Conference USA.  The Tigers just lost this past weekend at Rice, a team with just three other conference wins.  They also lost at SMU, and at home to Tulsa—teams with double digit losses on the season.


Why Illinois Gets In

Like Memphis, Illinois has four wins over the RPI top 50 and a win against Gonzaga, in Seattle. 

The Illini’s four wins, however, are a bit better collectively—North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan State and at Minnesota.   North Carolina and Wisconsin are both currently in the RPI top 20.  Minnesota is the only other Big Ten bubble team who also has two wins over teams in the RPI top 20.  Also, the Illini took Texas—a likely No. 1 seed— to overtime before losing in the 2K Sports Classic in New York, back in November.

Illinois’ won at Minnesota in their only meeting this season, which may help lift them over the Gophers in the bubble hierarchy.  They also beat Michigan—another team hanging on the bubble—in their only meeting this season.  Overall, the Illini are a solid 4-2 against all four of the other Big Ten bubble teams, including wins over Michigan State and Penn State in Champaign.

Of the Illini’s eight Big Ten losses, four of them are to the league’s top three teams—Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.  All three of those teams are in the Top 15, and each is likely to earn a Top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.  

Why Illinois is Left Out

Illinois is not trending particularly well—they’ve lost six of their past nine games.  That has taken them from a spot in the Top 20 down to having their very presence in the tournament questioned.  Granted, half of those losses are to Ohio State and Purdue—including losses to each at home.  However, the Illini have traditionally been such a good team at home that you might expect them to beat a Purdue in Champaign.

While Illinois usually plays well at home, they have played far from well on the road this season.  They are just 2-6 on the road in conference play.  Of the six losses, two of them are to Northwestern and Indiana—who are in the bottom three of the Big Ten. 

These losses, however, are not nearly as damaging as a December loss to Illinois-Chicago.  UIC has an RPI just barely inside of 300, and is tied for last place in the Horizon League.  That will truly be a head-scratcher for the committee when they deliberate over Illinois’ fate.


Who Gets In?

This one is tough to call (that’s the point right?), but Illinois gets the nod here.  The two wins over North Carolina and Wisconsin continue to pay dividends for the Illini, as each of those teams seems to be heading upward as we approach the tournament. 

Memphis simply does not have two comparable wins—and they had some opportunities— to match the Illini, let alone two wins over teams sure to be in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois IN, Memphis OUT


Other matchups to consider:

Richmond-Virginia Tech





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