By Dave Wischnowsky–
Well, tonight is it for Illinois basketball.
At least, if you ask Mike Tisdale.
“I realize if we don’t win, we’re not going to make the tournament,” the Illini’s senior center Mike Tisdale told the Tribune about this evening’s game at Minnesota (8 p.m., ESPN). “There’s no bracketology to it, it’s win or go home.”
But, is it, really?
While Tisdale’s urgency is admirable, the answer is: No, it’s not. Not yet. And let me remind you why:
That’s how many teams will make the NCAA Tournament this year – up three from the accustomed 65, and a fact that many amateur bracketologists projecting Illinois’ postseason hopes seem to be forgetting about this winter.
Now, without a doubt, the long backs of Tisdale and his Illini teammates are to the wall, and Illinois (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) has underachieved mightily so far this season. But, as ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said Wednesday night while discussing the current mediocrity of the entire college basketball landscape, “This year, they have to give out 68 bids.”
That means there are three more at-large berths than before, which means potential bubble teams like Illinois have more margin for error than last year.
If the enlarged bracket existed in 2010, Illinois – with its 10-8 Big Ten record – almost certainly would have been invited to the Big Dance. This year, it’s conceivable that the Illini could even slip in to the tourney with even a 9-9 conference mark. And that’s why it’s important for Illinois fans to become familiar with the phrase “The First Four.”
That’s the name the NCAA conjured up when it last April when it announced that the Men’s Basketball Tournament would be expanded from 65 to 68 teams and that Turner Sports would partner with CBS to televise every game live on CBS, TNT, TBS or truTV.
The “First Four” games in the tournament will be held in Dayton, with doubleheaders on Tuesday, March 15, and Wednesday, March 16. The field of 64 then will assemble across the country as normal on March 17 and 18.
The “First Four” will work this way: There will be two games between what the tournament committee determines are the final four at-large teams and two games matching teams on the 16-seed line (in other words, the supposed four weakest teams in the field).
After the “First Four,” the two surviving at-large teams likely will be on the 11- or 12-seed lines vs. either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. The winners of the other games will play No. 1 seeds. The Wednesday winners will not play until Friday, while the Tuesday winners could play Thursday or Friday.
Any team that wins a “First Four” games will have to win three grueling games in one week just to reach the Sweet 16. That won’t be easy. But it will still be better to be part of the “First Four” than the “Last One Out.”
On Wednesday evening, ESPN anchor John Anderson said, “With 68 bids, there’s plenty for everybody these days.”
Maybe even for Illinois.
Win or lose, this evening.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.