By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Anyone who watches horror flicks – or has at least caught an episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – knows that zombies can be awfully hard to kill.
Or, they can die quite easily.
Really, it all depends on whether they’re united together in a group, or if they’re out there stumbling along some road all alone.
Oddly enough, that same description just might also apply to the University of Illinois basketball team these days. After all, during a blood-curdling skid in which they failed to stick together and lost six straight games and eight of nine overall, the Illini were left for dead.
But after banding together for a 65-54 victory over Iowa on Sunday, might the Fighting Dead actually have some NCAA life still left in them?
Remarkably enough, I think they might.
Consider this: Illinois’ record currently sits at 17-12 overall, 6-10 in the Big Ten. Now, those numbers are far from impressive, of course, and Sunday’s win over the Hawkeyes hardly healed the Illini. Rather, it merely stopped their bleeding (for the time being, at least).
Nevertheless, while Illinois’ record is plenty lackluster, it does still include impressive victories over Michigan State (No. 4 RPI), Ohio State (No. 9) and Gonzaga (No. 22).
Come Thursday night, the Illini will host Michigan (No. 15), followed by Sunday’s regular-season finale at Wisconsin (No. 19). If Illinois was to win both of those games – far from easy, but not impossible if the team plays the way it did against Iowa – that would give the Illini five victories this season over teams ranked with Top 22 of the RPI, including one over a potential No. 1 seed (Michigan State) and one over a potential No. 2 seed (Ohio State).
According to RPIforecast.com, wins over the nationally ranked Wolverines and Badgers would give Illinois an RPI of about 51 against a schedule ranked among the 25th most difficult in the country. If the Illini were able to add at least one victory in the Big Ten Tournament, they would have a minimum of 20 wins on Selection Sunday.
Now, would that give them a fighting chance for an NCAA Tourney bid in spite of their one-win February?
Well, normally, I’d say probably not. But remember, the Big Dance is no longer a 64-team tournament. It’s a 68-team one, and the bubble is bigger than it used to be.
Last season, for example, USC was one of the teams selected to play for a No. 12 seed in the tourney’s “First Four” (aka “play-in” games). The Trojans slipped into the field with an overall record of just 18-13 and an RPI of 73.
Now, the Trojans did go 10-8 in the Pac-10, whereas the best Illinois could achieve in conference this season is 8-10. This year, however, the Big Ten is ranked as the strongest conference in the nation by a considerable margin. Currently, we can expect that six Big Ten teams – Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue – are safely in the field.
But it’s likely that at least one more team from the nation’s No. 1 league will make it in. Right now, Northwestern (17-11 overall) and Iowa (15-14) both sit ahead of Illinois in the conference standings with 7-9 records and will face each other on Saturday in the regular-season finale in Iowa City.
Let’s say that Illinois, NU and Iowa all manage to finish 8-10 in the league. In such a scenario, it’s difficult to argue that either the Wildcats (with a projected RPI of 45) or the Hawkeyes (134 RPI) – a duo that Illinois went 2-1 against – would have better resumes than the Illini heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
Even with Illinois’ recent tailspin factored into the equation.
Without a doubt, the Illini have terrified their fan base during the past several weeks while they played like zombies. But one fact does remain when it comes to their NCAA Tournament hopes:
They aren’t dead just yet.
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.