College

Wisch: With Win, The Bubble Now Beckons For Illini

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Tracy Abrams. (Getty Images)

Tracy Abrams. (Getty Images)

Dave Wischnowsky Dave Wischnowsky
Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred...
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By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) Can you be on the bubble for being on the bubble?

If so, that’s precisely where ninth-seeded Illinois finds itself today after an impressive 64-54 victory over eighth-seeded Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

On the strength of a season-high 25 points from junior guard Tracy Abrams, the Illini (19-13) have advanced to the quarterfinals, where top-seeded seed Michigan (23-7) awaits. And sitting there right alongside the Wolverines is Illinois’ chance at possibly sneaking into the NCAA Tournament, something that only someone wearing the thickest orange-colored glasses would have thought possible just a few weeks ago.

Coming into the conference tournament, I thought that if the Illini could win two games that they’d put themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble and that if they could somehow win three they’d have a great shot at getting in. But first, to have any shot at all, they need to keep Michigan from shooting as great as it did during the Wolverines’ 84-53 embarrassment of Illinois at the State Farm Center on March 4.

With all that in mind, here are a few more thoughts after the Illini’s rousing victory over the Hoosiers.

Not the same Illini

Earlier this week, when Illinois coach John Groce discussed the third clash between Indiana and his team, he said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

But this time around, the Illini weren’t nearly so familiar for the Hoosiers. That’s because, while the roster may be the same as when the schools last clashed on Jan. 26, the lineup was different with freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill having moved into the starting five in place of fifth-year seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey.

Thanks in large part to that lineup shake-up, Illinois has been a markedly different team down the stretch, as it has snapped an eight-game losing streak and now posted a 6-3 record in its last nine games, including 5-1 over the last six games.

In the previous two outings against Indiana, Nunn scored 11 points total while Hill failed to tally a point. But today, Nunn scored 10 points and Hill added eight. Get familiar with them, Hoosiers. They’ll be around for a while.

The Nunn factor

Take it for what it’s worth, but it has to be worth at least something: Since his freshman year of high school, Kendrick Nunn has never lost a postseason game.

Ever.

“Kendrick has shown a lot of restraint offensively and is very efficient,” Groce said earlier this week while lauding the 6-foot-3 guard after he made the all-Big Ten freshman team. “He has high basketball IQ, and he takes good shots. He has had a great background in basketball with his father a coach, and him winning two gold medals and four state championships (at Simeon). He has been around a lot of winning.”

A lot of winning.

As a prep, Nunn’s Simeon Wolverines won the IHSA state championship for four straight seasons and during both the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships and the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championships, his USA Basketball team collected gold medals.

That means that Nunn hasn’t come up short in a postseason tournament once since enrolling in high school. And while the Illini got a lot from other players besides Nunn against the Hoosiers, it’s a safe bet to say that he didn’t want to lose his first postseason game as a college player. I’m guessing that Nunn won’t exactly want to lose his second one, either.

Big Ten Tournament or Illini Invitational?

Few schools seem to enjoy the Big Ten Tournament like the Illini enjoy the Big Ten Tournament.

In the 17-year history of the event, Illinois owns the most wins (25), the second-best winning percentage (24-14 for .641), the second-most championship game appearances (six) and is tied for the third-most championships won (two).

The Illini also are the only No. 10 seed to ever reach the finals (in 2008) and the only No. 11 seed to reach the finals (in 1999). This season, they’re trying to become only the second No. 9 seed to make it (along with Iowa in 2002). And as an additional note, every Illinois coach who has guided the team during the Big Ten Tournament era – Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber – has reached the championship game at least once. Groce is vying to continue that trend.

Unlucky No. 9

On the sobering side of things is the fact that No. 9 has traditionally been an unlucky number in the Big Ten Tournament.

One might figure that, historically, games between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds would have been closely contested in the tournament. But one would figure wrong. In fact, including today, No. 8-seeded teams are 15-16 overall in the tourney, while No. 9 seeds have gone only 7-17.

But so far, the No. 9 seed is 1-0 in this Big Ten Tournament. And, really, right now that’s the only number that matters.

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