Point-Counterpoint: Will Illinois basketball make the NCAA tournament?

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill attempts a three-point shot during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Saturday. The Illini won 86-60.

Sam Sherman: So Illini basketball sits at 18-11, 8-8 in the Big Ten and they are on the NCAA tournament bubble with two games left. Do you think they will make it?

Steve Bourbon: No.

Sherman: Well, I believe that they will. That is based a lot on the desperation that I see in this team on the court and, more importantly, in coach John Groce.

Bourbon: This team is trending in the wrong direction. Yes, they destroyed Northwestern. But they made 14 threes. Northwestern’s defense just hemorrhages threes — they’re the worst in the conference in defending the three. So both times Illinois played Northwestern, they roasted them from 3-point land. But against a real defense, Illinois struggles to score. Nebraska is a bad team but has two really high-level players in Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway, which at least gives the Huskers a puncher’s chance.

Sherman: Obviously, Illinois lost already to Nebraska earlier this year (Jan. 11) in one of the ugliest games you’ll ever see.

Bourbon: I actually fell asleep during that game. That’s how bad it was.

Sherman: This argument ends if Illinois loses to Nebraska, but you saw what the Illini did to a bad Wildcats team on a hot streak. Nebraska is a bad team on a cold streak right now and I don’t see that reversing. I see Illinois beating Nebraska.

Bourbon: And me too, I’m just saying nothing is easy in the Big Ten. A win would put Illinois at 19-11, 9-8 in the conference.

Sherman: So 19 wins, going into Mackey Arena, always a tough place to play going up against a Purdue team that has exceeded many people’s expectations this year. I think Purdue is a really good team, and a motivated AJ Hammons is the best player in the Big Ten.

Bourbon: I can’t wait for that to blow up in your face when he has two points, two rebounds and five fouls.

Sherman: I still think Illinois is going to win this game because I think this is a season that John Groce needs to make the tournament.

Bourbon: He’s not getting fired.

Sherman: Yeah, he’s not getting fired. But, the conversation may officially start about what does he bring to the table if three years in, you have …

Bourbon: One tournament appearance.

Sherman: Exactly. There have been some injury issues and suspensions. But if you miss the tournament, the conversation officially starts. 

Bourbon: Instead of the perception of Groce being the savior, I think he would have to win fans back.

Sherman: Illinois, on paper, should make the tournament. The Tracy Abrams injury set them back further than I thought it would. I say that the Purdue game is a win. An angry Rayvonte Rice is as dangerous as any scorer in the Big Ten. I think they’ll come out with a win, your thoughts?

Bourbon: Watching the first game between these two teams, and watching Purdue, it’s simple to guard them, you would think. Pack the paint, front the post and chase the lob if they throw it over the top to their bigs. As long as your rotations are on point, you’re going to get steals and get in Hammons’ face. Make them shoot over you. If Raphael Davis makes a couple threes on you, so be it. As tough of an environment as that is, I also think Illinois has a good chance to come away with a win.

Sherman: So we’ve got a 20-win team with a couple of quality wins going into the Big Ten tournament. I say they’re in a great position already, what’s going to blow up in their face?

Bourbon: They’re going to lose in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Right now, it’s Michigan, Minnesota or Indiana depending on how things shakes out.

Sherman: Why are they going to lose in first round? Coming off of three straight wins.

Bourbon: They’re not great at anything. Their defense, last year, I would say was never bad. This year, there’s been times when the defense has been bad.

Sherman: When Nnanna Egwu comes out of the game.

Bourbon: They have nothing really to hang their hat on. It’s just a gut feeling. If they lose one of these next two games, it’s over.

Sherman: I agree.

Bourbon: Even if they lose at Purdue, I think they’re definitely out because 13-loss teams don’t make the NCAA tournament at-large. There’s been one at-large team to make the tournament with 13 losses the past two years — those are some steep odds.

Sherman: Here’s where I differ from you a little bit, I think momentum does matter, especially in college basketball.

Bourbon: Then why did Northwestern lose by 30 after four straight wins?

Sherman: True.

Bourbon: If you’re reading this, you realize I have no real argument, which is true. 

But it’s a gut feeling and I’m just betting on the craziness of the Big Ten, even though I like Illinois’ chances down the stretch.

Sam and Steve are seniors in Media.

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