Everything on the line Saturday as Illinois visits Purdue

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  • Illinois’ head coach John Groce talks to his team before the game against Nebraska at State Farm Center, on Wednesday, March 5, 2015. The Illini won 69-57.

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This is it.

By some fault of its own and also due to circumstances outside its control, the Illini basketball team faces a high-stakes situation Saturday. 

Illinois’ game against Purdue on Saturday afternoon is more than just the last game of the regular season. It’s a virtual NCAA tournament play-in game for both the Illini and the Boilers, who each sit at 19-11 on the season.

Purdue is coming off two straight losses, Illinois off two straight wins. And none of the 30 games that came before it for either team is as important as this one.

Both teams have been struggling for relevancy recently in a conference where they had runs of success for a decent chunk of this century. In the fall, both schools beg for basketball season to arrive as their football programs desperately try to dig out of mediocrity. Both head coaches need to win this game.

For Purdue head coach Matt Painter, it’s about proving that he can get his Boilermaker program back on the path to consistent NCAA tournament appearances, which it used to achieve regularly. For Illinois head man John Groce, the result of this one could alter the trajectory of his program. 

Groce has somewhat been a victim of his own success during his nearly three-year run in Champaign. After he exceeded expectations in his first season by reaching the NCAA tournament, fans have been hungry for a return to the national spotlight. Even though the Illini program required a significant rebuild after Bruce Weber’s departure, it appeared that Groce had the Illini on the fast-track to relevancy.

An NIT appearance in Groce’s second season was acceptable due to the unbalanced roster he was forced to assemble, but an NCAA tournament berth was the expectation entering this year. Critical injuries to key players (seniors Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice) have rendered some of this team’s flaws forgivable, but it’s still hard to predict how a second straight March in the NIT would damage the Illinois program.

If Illinois loses Saturday, it will most likely not make the NCAA tournament. In this era of Illinois basketball, that would be unprecedented. Even with their frustrating recent trend of only making the NCAAs every other year, the Illini have not missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments since 1991-92.

Level-headed fans can see that Groce has the Illinois program moving in the right direction, but consecutive NITs don’t mesh with the image he’s trying to build. If the Illini lose Saturday and fall short of the tournament, fans will have all spring and summer to think about Illinois basketball’s situation: a solid recruiting class coming in, a sparkling, renovated arena on the horizon, and … back-to-back NIT appearances?

If the Illini can win at Purdue and punch their ticket to the Dance, it will take considerable pressure off Groce heading into next season. His seat is nowhere near warm, but he almost certainly couldn’t afford to miss three NCAA tournaments in a row. That’s something I’m not sure any coach at Illinois could survive. 

While the implications of this game are huge for Groce and the program as a whole, it would be a shame to see the individuals who make up this year’s team come up short. Rice has never made an NCAA tournament; he’s an outstanding player who deserves to experience March Madness. Fellow senior Nnanna Egwu has worked too hard to not get one more run in the bracket.

This Illini team has given its fans some things to cheer about this year. They stormed through Vegas and beat a very good Baylor team. They snatched victory from Missouri (albeit a bad Tigers team) at the buzzer. They went on the road and out-toughed Sparty. 

They’ve had some head-scratching performances as well, which has led to the last day of the season becoming so significant. It’s not ideal to have to earn your tournament bid when 14,000 fans in an electric Mackey Arena are against you, but it’s the position the Illini are in. 

As Groce would say, Saturday is going to be a heavyweight fight.

 

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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