The way I see it…

By Lucas Deal

The Big Ten Tournament starts Thursday in Chicago and for the first time in a long time, I’m nervous.

It’s not a feeling I’m used to.

Normally, by the time the Big Ten Tournament comes around every year the Illinois basketball team has already punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Ten Tourney usually offers the Illini a great chance to improve their seeding and boost their confidence entering the Big Dance, but it’s more of an opportunity than a necessity. Tourney wins are always nice, but they’ve never really been needed.

This year, they are – and that’s where my nervousness comes from.

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I have to be honest. I can’t even imagine the NCAA Tournament without the Illini in it. I know it’s happened before because Illinois has only played in the NCAA Tournament 25 times, but as someone who can’t really remember any prior to 1995, picturing the tourney without Illinois in it is hard to grasp.

That said, just because the Illini aren’t in the tourney yet doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance. There are other teams with better profiles, but I still think a couple of solid Big Ten Tourney wins can get Illinois into the Dance.

The Illini enter this weekend as the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament despite tying for fourth-place in the regular season standings. Iowa, Purdue and Illinois all finished their portions of the Big Ten schedule at 9-7 and were seeded into the tournament by the league’s tiebreaker rule.

Because Illinois lost the tiebreaker, it was dropped to sixth while Iowa was given the fourth seed and Purdue the fifth.

Initially, I thought that was a bad thing. After a closer look, I think it might actually be a blessing.

By avoiding the 4/5 game, Illinois will be able to avoid opening the tournament against another hungry bubble team. That should help.

I say that because despite hanging with almost every team they’ve played this season, the Illini have almost no close wins. Therefore, if they were to blow another close game against a fellow bubble team in their first tournament game, I don’t see how they could justify an NCAA bid.

This way, the Illini will open the tournament against a weak Penn State team they rolled over 68-50 in Happy Valley just two weeks ago. And while the Nittany Lions (11-18, 2-14 Big Ten) will have nothing to lose in playing the Illini, it’s doubtful they’ll play smart enough to be able to pull the upset. Playing for pride makes teams play loose; it rarely makes them play smart.

Assuming the Illini take care of business against the Nittany Lions, they will take on third-seeded Indiana in the conference quarterfinals.

This is Illinois’ do or die game. A win would be its 23rd of the season, which is a ton for a bubble team. And not only that, a victory over the Hoosiers would finally prove the Illini can beat a quality team away from the Assembly Hall.

All things considered, Illinois and Indiana really aren’t that different. The Illini have more wins (21 to 20), but the Hoosiers have more conference wins (10 to 9). The Illini have a higher strength of schedule (26 to 40) but the Hoosiers have a better RPI (23 to 35).

When the two teams played each other, both won at home. The only real reason Illinois is on the bubble and Indiana isn’t is because the Hoosiers have a signature win (vs. Wisconsin).

That’s why Friday night’s potential quarterfinal match-up between both teams is so big. An Illini victory still won’t give them a signature win, but it will give them another good win. If nothing else, it will prove to the committee that the Illini are good enough to beat an NCAA-caliber team away from home.

The Illini missed their chance to prove that in close losses at Arizona, Xavier, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa, and if they can’t prove it on Friday, they won’t have another chance.

And the committee won’t have any reason to credit them accordingly.

Now do you see why I’m nervous?

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications.

He can be reached at [email protected].