By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Right now, when it comes to NCAA Tournament bids, the Big Ten is looking a little small.
In ESPN’s latest edition of “Bracketology,” Jim Delany’s 14-team conference had only six schools in the projected 68-team field. League leader Wisconsin was listed as a two-seed, and Maryland held a three-seed. But behind them, Indiana could be found clinging to a seven-seed, while Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State all stood together as a trio of mediocre nine-seeds.
Illinois wasn’t included in the bracket, not at all surprisingly considering that the Illini are currently 13-8 overall and just 3-5 in the Big Ten. However, when it comes to NCAA Tournament hopes, John Groce’s squad does have one silver lining – none of Illinois’ eight losses are truly “bad” setbacks.
Unlike Michigan and Nebraska, there are no New Jersey Institutes of Technology or Immaculate Words blighting the Illinois loss column. All of the Illini’s defeats have been against teams from major conferences with winning records, and seven of the losses have come on the road or at neutral sites.
That’s why, despite all of the Illini’s struggles this season, they do still have a shot at making the Big Dance if they can take care of business at home, beginning with beating lowly Penn State on Saturday and Rutgers on Tuesday.
With both the Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights at just 2-6 in conference, it’s crucial for the Illini to protect the State Farm Center court and get back to .500 in the Big Ten while avoiding a “bad” loss.
If Illinois can reach 5-5 and get injured veterans Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby back in the lineup, which reportedly could happen soon, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could split their final eight games to finish at 9-9 in the league. That could put them on the NCAA Tournament bubble, especially if the selection committee factors in the impact that injuries have had on Groce’s squad.
Even if leading scorer Rice is back in the starting lineup for the final eight games, Illinois will have stiff tests on the road at Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue. On the flip side, the home contests against Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska all would appear to be winnable and could potentially give the Illini a couple of nice wins over the Wolverines and Spartans, while avoiding “bad” losses against the Wildcats and Huskers.
And there again is the Illini’s one silver lining, which could help them still secure a chance this March.