If there was ever a team that should be more happy about playing in a tough conference more than the Illinois Fighting Illini I’d like to see it. Not that Illinois is a bad team relying only on RPI or looking to back their way in to the NCAA Tournament, it’s just that they played so well in their non-conference schedule(13-1) but so badly in conference play(4-7), that the strength of the Big 10 can help show why they deserve a pair of dancing shoes.
There is nothing wrong with struggling in your conference. It doesn’t mean that you are automatically a program that should be left out of the NCAA Tournament. However, it is a balancing act the Tournament Selection Committee will have to balance when it’s time to select a bunch of teams to put their dancing shoes on. This is where the Illini come on.
Their non-conference schedule was filled with the tastiest of cupcakes, yet three of the teams they played are going to go to the Tournament, with two of those three being projected high seeds. Their conference schedule has obviously been much tougher. Illinois resume includes wins over the number one ranked team in the country, two teams that were the eighth ranked team at the time they played them, and none of that is even counting the tenth and 12th ranked teams they toppled in the non-conference schedule. That’s a lot of ranked teams Illinois has put down, but they aren’t a lock to go dancing, yet.
Thankfully for the Illini, their remaining schedule is pretty favorable. Theoretically, Illinois should could out of that stretch no worse than 5-2, giving them a 22-10 overall record to finish the year and almost certainly give them a spot in March Madness.
However, none of that is a guarantee in the crazy Big 10 Conference. Almost nothing has been a given this season and if the Illini don’t lookout, they can find themselves playing in the NIT and for an irrelevant championship.
Joe covers the Catholic Seven for Rant Sports. For the love of Sam Cassell, follow Joe on the Twitter Machine @JosephNardone