By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) For weeks – months? – the University of Illinois basketball team has been tough to watch. So much so that Illini fans could hardly be blamed for wanting the season to end just so they didn’t have to watch it any longer.
Well, rub your eyes, Illini Nation.
Because what you should actually want is to see more of this 2013-14 team, not less. And the goal for this youthful Illini squad should be to qualify for a postseason tournament, any postseason tournament, in order to build toward what truly matters: the future we can’t see yet.
On Wednesday night in Minneapolis, the suddenly straight-shooting Illini knocked down 8 of 13 3-pointers – including five by budding freshman star Kendrick Nunn – as they upset the Golden Gophers, 62-49.
The unexpected victory lifted Illinois to 15-12 overall, 4-10 in the Big Ten, and most significantly gave the Illini a better shot of actually finding something in what’s been a lost season. Namely, an NIT bid.
The NIT requires a team to have a .500 record or better in order to receive an invitation, and with the win over Minnesota, Illinois now needs just one more victory in its last four conference games to finish the regular season above .500. Get that, and even with a loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois would still be NIT-eligible.
Now, that still doesn’t mean that the Illini would be selected for the NIT. But on Tuesday, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Sun-Times’ Steve Greenberg that if the Illini were offered a bid from the third-tier College Basketball Invitational, they would accept that, too.
And if that’s their only option, they absolutely should. Because with the late-season emergence of the freshman class – in particular Nunn and Malcolm Hill – it would be enormously beneficial for Illinois to extend this season as long as possible. That way, coach John Groce can take advantage of the extra practices, and the young players can take advantage of the extra games – even if they aren’t as exciting as the ones played in the NCAA Tournament.
With as crazy as Big Ten play has been this season, I suppose it also isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that the Illini could make a wild run through the Big Ten Tournament to sneak into the Big Dance – if they were to play and shoot for four straight days like they did on Wednesday night.
But, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that. The NIT or CBI are clearly the Illini’s best hopes for playing postseason basketball. And after the win over Minnesota, Groce said, “For them to get rewarded and continue to fight and handle adversity the way we have makes me feel good for the guys we have.”
It would surely make him feel even better if those guys were able to continue playing into March.