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Bubble Watch: 5 Reasons Why Illinois Basketball Will Make NCAA Tournament

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5 Reasons Why Illinois Will Make the NCAA Tournament

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Most onlookers could probably state that Illinois' bubble has already burst.

Entering play Tuesday night against Big Ten conference leader Michigan, the Fighting Illini stood at 17-12 with an RPI of 66 and a strength of schedule of 51. What helps them is the conference itself is second in both RPI and SOS.

What hurts them is not so much the overall record, but the 6-10 conference record. In addition, they have a 4-8 record in their last 12 games. A victory this past Saturday at Michigan State opened the discussion for an at-large bid again, as Illinois was now on three-game winning streak and playing inspired basketball.

In what might easily be regarded as their most important game of the season, the Fighting Illini ran into a Michigan team that had plans of their first outright conference championship since 1986. The Wolverines planned accordingly, drubbing the Illini 84-53.

The loss was a disappointment to say the least, especially in front of a home crowd looking to help its school gain a second win over a ranked opponent in as many games. Current projections don't have them placed in the tournament, and conference foes Nebraska and Minnesota are mentioned in a much higher regard.

They are 2-5 against the top 50, but have a chance to improve upon that record at No. 24 Iowa this Saturday. The Hawkeyes beat them a little over a month ago in Champaign, 81-74. Revenge would be nice, but this young Illini group are less concerned with that than getting a bid to the NCAA tournament.

A loss against Iowa would be the nail in the coffin, even if they fared well in the Big Ten tournament. Simply put, they can't come up short in any game. Running the table is the only option.

The way the conference bracket is set up, the top four seeded teams received a bye. This means that Illinois will have to win a first round game before the Illini get a chance to play against a team that's all but guaranteed a spot. Perhaps the opponent waiting in the wings would be Michigan. Before they even think that far ahead, they have to take care of some other pertinent details first.

Here's five reasons why Illinois will make the tournament:

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5. They're Desperate

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A win at Iowa would draw some attention, as Carver-Hawkeye Arena is not an easy place to play. Win or lose, Illinois has to play a first-round game potentially against Minnesota. A loss there, and it can completely forget about not only the NCAA tournament, but possibly the NIT as well.

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4. Everyone Loves the Big Ten

Big Ten
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The conference that has five programs considered as locks (Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State), two on the bubble (Nebraska and Minnesota) and two others hanging on for dear life are ranked No. 2 in RPI and SOS. Illinois does have two solid wins out of conference it can be proud of, winning at UNLV, 61-59, and 65-64 over then-No. 23 Missouri. Clipping any stretch of the conference front-runners would definitely catch the attention of the committee.

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3. The Freshmen Will Get Loose

Nunn and Hill
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Guard Kendrick Nunn entered with all the fanfare. Not only was he a teammate of Jabari Parker at Chicago's famed Simeon High, both he and Parker had their jersey retired during their final home game of the season. Nunn got off to a slow start this season, averaging just 5.8 PPG a contest. However, he's scored 13 or more points in three of their last four games.

Malcolm Hill has also provided quality time lately. Averaging 4.2 PPG, Hill stepped up in big wins over Nebraska and at Michigan State with 10 points in both games.

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2. Rayvonte Rice

Rayvonte Rice
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Rice leads the team in scoring (15.8 PPG) and is also tied for the team lead in rebounds (6.0 RPG). Despite the numbers, the versatile junior guard has been somewhat disappointing, shooting just 42 percent from the floor. The Drake transfer is a gifted scorer and is explosive. When he penetrates to the basket, he's quicker than most guarding him. He'll definitely have to play with poise for the Illini to survive in a tournament setting.

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1. Stifling Defense

Illinois defense
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini are excellent at plugging the lane and can extremely frustrate you when they extend the defense up top. That defense frustrated several recent opponents, as they held four straight teams under 50 points. If you can't shoot the basketball against Illinois, trouble will follow, as they allowed just 62 PPG this season.