Despite being one of the better teams in the country last season, the Illini received little hype coming into this year. Part of this was fair. The team lost some of its most important players including Brandon Paul, who was a major factor in several big wins last year. Of course, some of the lack of coverage was also unfair. John Groce has proven he can be a quality coach and Illinois did return some interesting pieces this year. Maybe a Big Ten title would be out of reach, but Illinois certainly could surprise and make a decent run in the conference season.
Eleven games into the year, Illinois has continued to remain under the radar. There is a good argument pointing to this no longer being justified. Despite having two losses on the year, this team has still largely exceeded expectations. Both of the losses were on the road in challenging situations and the team is still 9-2, a pretty good record this far into the year. Perhaps Illinois lacks a "signature win" and perhaps they have not beaten opponents by enough of a margin, but this team is still doing what it takes to win and has put itself into good position going forward.
Most Illinois fans (realistic or not) were hoping for the NCAA Tournament this year. This is still possible. Illinois has shown its flaws in several games this year, close games against UNLV, IPFW, Dartmouth, and the loss to Georgia Tech. Concerns of playing on the road aside, all four of those should have been wins for an NCAA Tournament team. Maybe this is what is leaving Illinois off many's radar, but there is still plenty to be excited about.
First, all things considered, Illinois is probably going to finish the non-conference slate at 10-3. None of the losses at home, two of the losses on the road, and two of the losses to ranked competition. That is not something that screams "panic." Along with this, Illinois is rated at #54 on KenPom. No doubt, many would like that to be higher, but teams can make it work from there. La Salle finished the year at #52 last season and made the Sweet Sixteen, Belmont finished at #55 on made the NCAA Tournament last season, and California made the NCAA Tournament and won a game at #56 last season. There are plenty of examples of teams in Illinois' range doing damage.
The biggest part will be putting things together in conference season and particularly at home. Sure, Illinois could beat Missouri on Saturday and make this discussion mute, but we are going to operate under the theory that the Tigers will win. Right now, Illinois is rated 8th in the Big Ten according to KenPom. Many have 7 teams projected to come out of the Big Ten in March. Illinois needs to record wins over those "bubble" teams from the Big Ten and snag a few big games at home. The good news is that Illinois gets Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan all at home. Beating all of these teams is certainly not necessary to be relevant in March, but recording wins in any of these games would be huge for an at-large bid.
Perhaps the biggest game of the season could be in mid February on the road against Minnesota. The Gophers are going to be in a dogfight to make the NCAA Tournament and a potential upset from Illinois would significantly help their position. The other thing worth noting about many of Illinois' opponents are that they may be "better" than Illinois, but the top portion of the Big Ten is more flawed than it was last season. Teams like Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa have significant flaws. Illinois has a great home court advantage and beating these teams at home is definitely far from impossible.
There is still plenty to be seen from this year's Illinois team, but do not count them out on making a serious run for the NCAA Tournament this year. They may have their flaws, but they have shown they can be competitive and have the ability to win games they should. They will be just one of several Big Ten teams fighting for the NCAA Tournament late in the season.