Illini keep faith for spot in the NCAA

By Lucas Deal

The message boards are buzzing; columns are popping up all over the state. Even in classrooms throughout campus you can hear the doubters, their whispers echo through the silence of syllabus week.

“Is the basketball team going to make the (NCAA) tournament?”

Support the Daily Illini in College Media Madness!

Help the Daily Illini take back the top spot in the College Media Madness fundraising competition! See the current ranking here.

learn more
donate now

In recent years, that question was about as valid as whether or not CO’s is disgusting – it was an overwhelming yes.

But this year, things aren’t so clear cut. CO’s might still be a cesspool, but the Illini basketball team is far from an NCAA sure thing.

And yet, it’s not that the Illini have fallen off the college basketball map. At 14-6 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, the Illini are still in a good position to make their eighth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. It’s just that for the first time since the Lon Kruger Era, the Illini aren’t cruising through this season from high atop their pedestal as one of the Big Ten’s elite. Instead, they find themselves middling through the grind of the 16-game conference schedule with the league’s second tier, and that’s a place most Illini faithfuls aren’t accustomed to.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber summed up Illini Nation’s anxiety over the Orange and Blue pretty well after the team’s 18-point home loss to Ohio State on Jan. 6 by stating, rather bluntly, “We’ve hit a low point; we can’t keep playing like this.”

Since then, the Illini have won two of three, but missed out on a golden opportunity to steal a quality road win when they blew a double-digit halftime lead at Michigan State on Jan. 14.

A win on the road against the equally struggling Spartans would have done wonders for the team’s resume, as well as its confidence.

However, the season is not over. The Illini can still salvage this thing. It’s not going to be easy by any means, but it’s not as if they’re in must-win mode already. From what I can see, the Illini can still finish the conference slate with 10 wins if they hold serve at home and steal a couple road games.

And even if they can’t, an 8-8 record in the conference would give them 20 wins entering the Big Ten Tournament and one premiere win over a nationally-ranked team (perhaps No. 3 Wisconsin tomorrow at Assembly Hall) would make for a pretty strong resume.

If that’s not enough, if you Illini faithfuls are still skeptical that 20-11 and 8-8 records from the Big Ten doesn’t cut it anymore, you might want to remember one more very important thing.

The Big Ten Tournament is in Chicago.

It’s a huge advantage for Weber’s Illini to know that – if necessary – they’ll be able to make one last bid for the NCAA Tournament playing in their home away from home. Yep, if the Illini enter March playing for their postseason life, at least they’ll be able to do it in a place where they’re 16 for their last 16 and 29-6 overall.

It’s not a bad situation to be in.

Now, I think we all hope it doesn’t come down to that, and the Illini will have long since punched their ticket to the “Big Dance” by the time the Big Ten Tourney rolls around, but it’s still nice to know that there is a backup plan in mind if something goes wrong.

If the Big Ten schedule turns out to be more of a nightmare than a dream, there is an alternative.

That sure does make me feel better.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]