Illinois Basketball Still On Track For NCAAs Despite Setbacks

By Matt Johnson
2014 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational Basketball Tournament Baylor v Illinois
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It’s become almost an annual tradition for college basketball fans around the country. Once mid-February comes into view, terms such as “RPI” and “strength of schedule” make their way into ongoing debates about qualification for March Madness.

Where does that leave the Big 10? Currently, as many as seven teams can make arguments supporting an invitation to the NCAA tournament. But how realistic are each of their chances?

For teams like Wisconsin, Maryland and Ohio State, inclusion into the NCAAs is almost a foregone conclusion. Things can always change of course — such is the nature of Division I basketball. For now, however, it’s a pretty safe bet the Badgers, Terrapins and Buckeyes will watch Selection Sunday with an eye on potential seeding rather than hoping for a simple invitation into the 68-team field.

One outfit that figures to sweating things out is Illinois.

The Illini had high hopes entering 2014-15. Bolstered by the return of four starters, along with the arrival of key transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, conventional wisdom indicated Illinois would return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2013.

Then, point guard Tracy Abrams was lost for the season with an ACL tear, forcing coach John Groce to adjust on the fly. With both Cosby and Starks sharing time at the point along with Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, Illinois still managed to go 10-3 in the preseason to set themselves up for a nice run in Big 10 play.

With more than half the conference slate completed, the Illini sit at 16-8 overall and are rated No. 44 in the latest RPI ratings. Illinois is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak, including their clutch road victory over Michigan State on Saturday. With upcoming dates against Michigan, Wisconsin, a rematch against the Spartans, and a tough road game against Iowa over the next three weeks, the Illini have picked a good time to play their best basketball of the year.

Can Illinois continue the momentum? While crunching stats and analyzing matchups may be a more conventional means of determining Illinois’ postseason fate, it may simply come down to a matter of health and availability in Champaign.

So far this season, the Illini have lost a myriad of players to injuries. First it was Abrams with his ACL. Then, it was leading scorer Rayvonte Rice breaking a bone in his left hand. Cosby followed up by suffering a retinal tear in his left eye, leaving Illinois so short-handed that student manager Ryan Schmidt was added to the roster before the Minnesota game.

Nevertheless, Illinois has managed to go undefeated over the past three games thanks to the play of Malcolm Hill, who has been outstanding since the losses of both Rice and Cosby. Can he continue to carry the Illini down the stretch? It’s a question that figures to be answered soon since both Rice and Cosby are currently suspended due to an unspecified violation of team rules.

Even with their personnel losses, Illinois has proven resilient on the court. Senior center Nnanna Egwu and freshman phenom Leron Black have stepped up in the front court, while little-used Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert have been thrust into more prominent roles. Add it all up, and the Illini have done an excellent job overcoming obstacles since the start of Big 10 play.

Now, the task becomes tougher. Michigan already has a win over Illinois this season, and Wisconsin is predictably rolling right along. The Spartans will no doubt be in a surly mood for the rematch at Assembly Hall on Feb. 22, while Iowa is always challenging at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Still, Illinois appears to be in good shape for landing a potential NCAA bid. They’ve already overcome enough adversity to last a whole season of ups and downs. If they can maintain their current form, that trip the NCAA tournament may await after all.

Matt Johnson is a Big 10 basketball writer for Follow him on Twitter at mattytheole or “like” him on Facebook.

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