Wisch: Illini NCAA Tourney Hopes Aren’t Dead Just Yet

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Anyone who watches horror flicks – or has at least caught an episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – knows that zombies can be awfully hard to kill.

Or, they can die quite easily.

Really, it all depends on whether they’re united together in a group, or if they’re out there stumbling along some road all alone.

Oddly enough, that same description just might also apply to the University of Illinois basketball team these days. After all, during a blood-curdling skid in which they failed to stick together and lost six straight games and eight of nine overall, the Illini were left for dead.

But after banding together for a 65-54 victory over Iowa on Sunday, might the Fighting Dead actually have some NCAA life still left in them?

Remarkably enough, I think they might.

Consider this: Illinois’ record currently sits at 17-12 overall, 6-10 in the Big Ten. Now, those numbers are far from impressive, of course, and Sunday’s win over the Hawkeyes hardly healed the Illini. Rather, it merely stopped their bleeding (for the time being, at least).

Nevertheless, while Illinois’ record is plenty lackluster, it does still include impressive victories over Michigan State (No. 4 RPI), Ohio State (No. 9) and Gonzaga (No. 22).

Come Thursday night, the Illini will host Michigan (No. 15), followed by Sunday’s regular-season finale at Wisconsin (No. 19). If Illinois was to win both of those games – far from easy, but not impossible if the team plays the way it did against Iowa – that would give the Illini five victories this season over teams ranked with Top 22 of the RPI, including one over a potential No. 1 seed (Michigan State) and one over a potential No. 2 seed (Ohio State).

According to RPIforecast.com, wins over the nationally ranked Wolverines and Badgers would give Illinois an RPI of about 51 against a schedule ranked among the 25th most difficult in the country. If the Illini were able to add at least one victory in the Big Ten Tournament, they would have a minimum of 20 wins on Selection Sunday.

Now, would that give them a fighting chance for an NCAA Tourney bid in spite of their one-win February?

Well, normally, I’d say probably not. But remember, the Big Dance is no longer a 64-team tournament. It’s a 68-team one, and the bubble is bigger than it used to be.

Last season, for example, USC was one of the teams selected to play for a No. 12 seed in the tourney’s “First Four” (aka “play-in” games). The Trojans slipped into the field with an overall record of just 18-13 and an RPI of 73.

Now, the Trojans did go 10-8 in the Pac-10, whereas the best Illinois could achieve in conference this season is 8-10. This year, however, the Big Ten is ranked as the strongest conference in the nation by a considerable margin. Currently, we can expect that six Big Ten teams – Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue – are safely in the field.

But it’s likely that at least one more team from the nation’s No. 1 league will make it in. Right now, Northwestern (17-11 overall) and Iowa (15-14) both sit ahead of Illinois in the conference standings with 7-9 records and will face each other on Saturday in the regular-season finale in Iowa City.

Let’s say that Illinois, NU and Iowa all manage to finish 8-10 in the league. In such a scenario, it’s difficult to argue that either the Wildcats (with a projected RPI of 45) or the Hawkeyes (134 RPI) – a duo that Illinois went 2-1 against – would have better resumes than the Illini heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

Even with Illinois’ recent tailspin factored into the equation.

Without a doubt, the Illini have terrified their fan base during the past several weeks while they played like zombies. But one fact does remain when it comes to their NCAA Tournament hopes:

They aren’t dead just yet.

davewisch Wisch: Illini NCAA Tourney Hopes Aren’t Dead Just Yet

Dave Wischnowsky

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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • tom sharp

    First, who cares?/ They are losers! Second, if they do make it they lose in the first round anyway. Third, if they do make it, they may keep their loser coach which would really hurt them in the long run!

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Tom, for any basketball program a loss in the NCAA Tournament is better than any win in the NIT. In terms of experience (most of the Illini are underclassmen), stature (it just looks better, even in a disappointing year) and making the job more appealing to a potential Weber successor, reaching the Big Dance is hardly irrelevant for Illinois.

  • Dan Outlaw

    Wisch, always a good read. I hope this team can fight like mad dogs down the stretch. I have always said that this team “could beat anyone…or lose to anyone” and it will be hard to keep this team out if they beat Mich and Wiscy. Or we can just win the B1G tourney and not have to sweat selection sunday!

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thanks, Dan. And at the very least it would be nice to see Illinois play hard and finish strong this season. Even if Weber is in his final days in Champaign, he still deserves to go out better than the way the team had been sending him. Beating Michigan and Wisconsin would be a tall task for the Illini, but with a guy like Leonard in the middle, it’s hardly beyond the realm of possibility — if the team can get Meyers the ball. That, of course, has been an issue all season long.

      • Dan Outlaw

        Not a problem. You always deliver great articles on the Illini. Not getting the ball to Leonard has been frustrating all year, but he also needs to demand the ball more. I am probably the biggest Weber supporter there is in Champaign, because I know that this is the right guy for this job. I am tired of coaches using us a “stepping-stone” to get where they want. When Leonard committed to Illinois, I figured 2013 would be the best chance for us to get back to the Final Four. DJ/BP3 will be seniors, Tracy will be outstanding next season, and the rest of the freshman will just get better. I just hope Mike Thomas can see the (dim) light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Dan Outlaw

    The Weber bashers are really getting old. Because of our successful non-conference schedule, unfair expectations were put on him and this team. Everyone is quick to say “fire weber” but can never give a legitimate replacement for him. People say “Shaka Smart” and why? Is this not the same type of coach Weber is? “small mid-major coach, who took his team on a deep tourney run” Why fire a coach and replace him with a younger version of what we have? Next 2 years have some amazing recruits, and Weber just got 3 of them to commit. Again, be careful what you wish for.

  • Russ

    All true, but it’s too bad that there are too many ifs. The words of this article scrolled through my mind during the game on Sunday and that’s all good..for now I’m liking this rehash…”for any basketball program a loss in the NCAA Tournament is better than any win in the NIT. In terms of experience (most of the Illini are underclassmen), stature (it just looks better, even in a disappointing year) and making the job more appealing to a potential Weber successor, reaching the Big Dance is hardly irrelevant for Illinois.”

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    I like and admire your optimism, Dave…but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Me neither, Arse. But Illini fans need something positive to think about these days :)

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