Illinois Fighting Illini Deserve Spot in NCAA Tournament

By Chris Katje
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

After an impressive 12-0 start to the NCAA Basketball season, the Illinois Fighting Illini fell from top to the bottom. The team entered Thursday night with an unimpressive 2-7 record in the Big Ten and found themselves on the outside of the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Then, Tyler Griffey hit an open layup to beat number one ranked Indiana and secure Illinois a place in March Madness.

Illinois will be one of the team’s you hear about from now until Selection Sunday. They have an impressive body of work, but have a bad record in a good conference. The selection committee will have to decide how to value each of these assets. In my opinion, Illinois is more than in the Field of 68.

The win over Indiana gave the Illini wins over three ranked (at the time) opponents. Here are Illinois impressive wins:

  • Butler (Neutral Court) 78-64
  • Gonzaga (No. 10 at time) 85-74
  • Ohio State (No. 8 at time) 74-55
  • Indiana (No. 1 at time) 74-72

The win against Gonzaga came on the road and is the second most important game, behind Thursday’s victory over Indiana. The Zags, who are now ranked 6th, have only one loss at home all season. Butler is the only other team that has beaten Gonzaga. Butler is now ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll, giving the earlier win over the Bulldogs a better place on Illinois’ resume.

The four impressive wins all came over teams that are currently ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll. This might be part of the reason why Illinois is ranked 41st in the latest RPI rankings. A win over Indiana, who was ranked tenth in RPI, should see Illinois climb higher.

Illinois has eight games left in conference play. The team faces tough games against Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. A win over any of these three teams would further Illinois into the tournament. The team also needs to take care of business against Purdue, Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa. If the team can beat one of the three tough opponents and win the easy five, it would finish with a 9-9 record in the Big Ten and an overall record of 22-10. I projected the team to finish with an 11-7 record in league play, good for fifth place.

The question isn’t whether or not Illinois will make the NCAA Tournament. The question is what seed will they be given. With the team’s body of work, there is no way this team shouldn’t make the field.

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