Gruen: Surging Illini Have NCAA Tournament Berth In Sight

By Seth Gruen–

(CBS) Inconsistency has been the hallmark of the John Groce era at Illinois, and that’s among the most damning characterizations one can bequeath a coach of any sport at any level.

But in a twisted way, if you really think about it, to be inconsistent means that you’re also good, at least a small part of the time. It’s the only explanation I can muster for the Illini’s recent four-game winning streak, a run that should leave its fan base wondering about the future of its coach and program.

Two weeks ago, the remainder of the Illini’s season appeared as meaningless as the NBA’s regular season. Illinois was 4-9 in conference and on the NIT bubble. Groce was a lame duck.

Then Illinois beat Iowa and Northwestern (for the second time this season), winning back-to-back conference games for the first time in two years. It spurred this recent hot streak, which has jettisoned the NIT talk for that of the NCAA Tournament bubble and given Groce the possibility of returning for another season.

To be clear, I don’t believe Groce should return. One can’t look at snippets of a season and use it to justify a coach’s worth. Former Illinois and current Cleveland State athletic director Mike Thomas  did just that when he hired Groce, who guided Ohio to the Sweet 16 in 2012 but in four years as the program’s coach had never finished higher than third in the MAC.

Groce had a nice weekend and was handed the keys to a major college program. It was like giving an amateur his PGA Tour card just because they birdied a couple holes at Pebble Beach.

But with the NCAA Tournament a possibility, there has to be heights that Groce could reach that would earn him another year at Illinois. Hypothetically, if the team made a Final Four, athletic director Josh Whitman couldn’t fire Groce.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. The use of such hyperbole is only to suggest that Groce now may have the opportunity to do enough to retain his job. But what does he have to do? Get Illinois to Sweet 16? Win an NCAA Tournament game? Just make it to the Big Dance?

The latter still remains in question, but it’s a distinct possibility. Illinois (18-12, 8-9) should beat Rutgers in its regular-season finale Saturday to push its Big Ten record to .500.

By comparison, if Northwestern — now considered an NCAA Tournament lock — loses to Purdue, it would only have one more conference win than Illinois. And comparing the two programs further reveals that the two teams resumes aren’t far off one another.

Northwestern’s RPI is currently 45, and Illinois’ is 55. But the Illini’s strength of schedule (15th) is much better than that of the Wildcats (76th), and Illinois has more top-50 RPI wins (five) than Northwestern (four).

It’s reasonable to conclude that such a difference in strength of schedule could amount one win in conference (if Northwestern loses to Purdue in its finale and Illinois beats Rutgers), especially given that the Wildcats’ doubles were much easier. And given that Illinois won both meetings, it brings the two teams even closer.

That’s not to slight what Northwestern has accomplished. The Wildcats are deserving of a bid, no doubt, but for a selection committee using the aforementioned metrics, it’s reasonable to conclude they could view both teams similarly. Elsewhere, Michigan (No. 48 in RPI and No. 34 in strength of schedule, with four RPI top-50 wins) is considered a lock but is generally comparable to Illinois. The teams split two meetings this season.

And with the Big Ten Tournament remaining, there’s even more opportunity for all of the conference’s teams to bolster or weaken their resumes.

All of a sudden, Illinois’ fate has become unsealed.

Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

Watch & Listen LIVE