Is Illinois done?
After a great start to the season, the Illini have lost five of their last six games, and are looking like they will miss the NCAA Tournament. Their most recent loss came after they blew a 10-point halftime lead at Michigan State, and lost 80-75.
Illinois’ greatest fears have come true. The biggest flaws, that they were so well able to hide in non-conference play, have been embarrassingly exposed. Illini fans liked to think that this free form, undersized, three-point shooting team, that was so good against Gonzaga and Butler in the non-conference slate, could keep that up in the humbling Big Ten. I even thought that they had something there– not a top 10 team, but certainly an NCAA Tournament heading team. Now, however, those dreams appear to have been dashed. Hopes of an NCAA Tourney run have quickly been replaced by wondering how many games in a row they can lose. Before, one could look at their schedule and try to count how many games they would even lose. Now, it is how many can they even win?
The fact that Illinois still has home games against Penn State and Nebraska is the only real bright side left this season for them. Those might be the only two games where Illinois will be favored in for the rest of the season. The Big Ten gauntlet that everyone has to go through now seems much scarier for Illinois. At 2-6, they have to win six of their final eight games, to finish .500. That would give them a chance at getting in to the NCAA Tournament. If you look at their schedule, is is very apparent that is not going to happen.
Thursday night at Michigan State, Illinois had a big, great opportunity. They had looked good in the first half and carried a 10-point lead over the No. 13 team in the country. A win could have potentially salvaged the season, by reminding the Illinois team that they are (were?) a good team. It would have been that marquee win that would help a potential bubble team in March. It could have given them momentum and hope for their upcoming games against Wisconsin, and Indiana. Instead, Illinois is still in free fall, and they are frantically looking for something to grab on to before it is too late. The problem is, it is too late.