By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) On Monday morning, a Facebook friend posted a status asking where people thought Illinois will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. His guess: as a No. 8 seed.
Later in the day, a co-worker told me his buddy, an Illinois alum, sent him a text on Sunday night after the Illini rallied to beat Minnesota on the road. The message breathlessly read: “We’re in!”
Meanwhile, my own friend also shot me a text after that big Illinois victory over the Gophers, asking the question: “Tournament?”
My answer: “Keep winning.”
Contrary to this pre-March Madness that’s suddenly sweeping through the Land of Lincoln following the giddy, four-day whirlwind during which Illinois upset both No. 1 Indiana and No. 18 Minnesota, the Fighting Illini are not yet in the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, at 4-7 in the Big Ten, they’re still not even close.
But it is true that the Illini can now see a tourney bid from here – as long as they don’t get caught looking ahead to it.
“We’re just trying to get to the (NCAA) tournament, that’s our goal,” Illinois senior D.J. Richardson told the Champaign News-Gazette Sunday night after scoring 13 points in the 57-54 win at Minnesota. “We’re trying to finish the rest of this Big Ten season out with some good wins, taking every team once at a time, preparing every day the same way and we’ve got another season after that.”
Yes, and it can be in the NCAA Tournament – or in the NIT.
Games don’t win themselves. Illinois still has to do it.
The encouraging news is that according to statistical guru Ken Pomeroy, the Illini have faced the toughest schedule in the nation so far this season with nine games against the top 13 teams in his ratings. That stat bodes very well for Illinois considering that RPIRatings.com reports that since 1991, 17 of the 22 teams holding the No. 1 strength-of-schedule rating at the end of the regular season have found themselves in the NCAA Tournament field.
The only ones who didn’t make it were 1992 Notre Dame (14-14 record), 1995 Duke (13-18), 1999 Florida State (13-17), 2003 Georgia (19-8), and 2009 Virginia (10-18).
All of those teams, except for ’03 Georgia which was ineligible for postseason play, had losing records. So they weren’t getting in the NCAA Tourney anyway. But squads such as 1991 Georgetown (14-12), 1994 Virginia (17-12) and 2001 Georgia (16-14) did make the tourney field despite having records hovering not far above .500.
With all that in mind, Illinois indeed is looking good at 17-8 overall with a favorable schedule remaining. And in naming the Illini his “Team of the Week,” SI.com’s Seth Davis wrote on Sunday night that, “these veteran Illini know just how precarious their NCAA tournament resume was heading into this week. Even though they are still three games under .500 in the Big Ten, as long as they don’t go in the tank over the next five weeks, I fully expect the Illini to be in the field of 68.”
And I do too – as long as they, you know, don’t go in the tank.
But don’t assume that can’t happen. After all, it already has.
If last week was Redemption Week for the Illini with confidence-boosting victories over the Hoosiers and Gophers, then this week is Revenge Week. On Wednesday and Sunday, Illinois has the chance to avenge its two most embarrassing losses of the season to Purdue and Northwestern. Illinois should be able to win these games against the 12-12 Boilermakers and the 13-11 Wildcats, but, then again, they should have been able to beat them the first time around, too.
“We’re having a lot of fun and it’s not just because we won a couple of games, I think it’s because we’re playing together as a team,” Brandon Paul said on Sunday night. “Coach (John Groce) talked about getting back to that.
“I don’t think anyone on our team has given up. As long as we keep fighting, I think good things are ahead for us.”
And they certainly appear to be.
As long as Illinois keeps on fighting – and winning.
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.