By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It was a win that only the heaviest orange Kool-Aid drinker could have possibly seen coming, but it’s a victory that will forever be viewed by every Illini fan as among the greatest in school history.
No matter what happens the rest of this basketball season.
But what needs to happen the rest of this basketball season is for Illinois to build upon its stunning 74-72 upset of No. 1 Indiana on Thursday night and make it mean even more.
Namely, by using the win as a springboard to an NCAA Tournament berth – and, in turn, truly launching John Groce’s Illini coaching career.
Now at 16-8 overall and 3-7 in the Big Ten, Illinois had lost six of its previous seven games before Tyler Griffey’s layup kissed the glass at the buzzer on Thursday, sending the Assembly Hall crowd into a fit of Champaignia. The afterglow of the epic win is sure to last until at least Sunday evening, when it’s up to the Illini players to keep it shining after a 5 p.m. tipoff at Minnesota.
As bumpy as the Big Ten season has been thus far for Illinois, it also hasn’t been quite as disastrous as one might think. As Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate pointed out in his column this morning, the Illini now have four quality wins against Associated Press-ranked teams Butler (No. 14), Gonzaga (No. 6), Ohio State (No. 10) and Indiana (No. 1) vs. just two bad losses against Purdue and Northwestern.
With eight Big Ten regular-season games left on the schedule, as well as at least one contest in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, Illinois still has ample opportunity to salvage success – or squander its upset of Indiana. But if Illinois can win five of its last eight conference games to finish 8-10, I think the Illini are likely to find themselves comfortably within the 68-team NCAA Tourney field.
After all, as Tate also highlighted in his column, “Illinois has played seven teams ranked in the Top 13, and beaten two of them. With strength of schedule so important, these particular losses aren’t hurtful insofar as the NCAA is concerned.”
Prior to last night’s toppling of the Hoosiers, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Illinois among its “First Four Teams Out” of the tourney, even with the Illini’s recent skid. One would think, based upon Thursday’s big win, that Illinois would now be among Lunardi’s “Last Four Teams In” as of this morning.
Helping the Illini’s chances down the stretch is the fact that their remaining Big Ten schedule appears to be less daunting, in terms of opposing records, than the gauntlet they began the season by running through. Illinois’ first 10 foes, against whom the Illini went just 3-7, have a current combined record of 161-68 for a .703 winning percentage.
Illinois’ last eight opponents, meanwhile, have a record of 113-69 for a winning percentage of .621. However, the rub is that five of the eight games are on the road, something that’s rarely easy in the Big Ten as the Hoosiers learned on Thursday night.
The Illini, though, have shown this season that they can beat the best of the best – literally, in the case of IU – and there is reason to believe that an 8-10 Big Ten record can be achieved. Perhaps even a 7-11 record, with a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament could also get them in – but Illinois would be far better of taking care of business before then.
Back in November, I wrote that if the Illini can simply make the NCAA Tournament in Groce’s first year, this season should be considered a success. I still believe that. But, if Illinois can parlay a thrilling upset of the nation’s top-ranked team into a madcap run to a tourney bid, that wouldn’t just be simple success for Groce & Co.
That would be a statement.
Perhaps Illinois finally started clearing its throat last night.
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.