With a loss on Sunday on the road against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Illinois Fighting Illini fell to 1-3 in conference play. Though Illinois may not look horrible on paper thus far, the losses have been particularly frustrating to watch, arguably the second most frustrating in the Big Ten only behind Minnesota (Poor Gophers!). With leading scorer Rayvonte Rice out for 3-6 weeks, the remainder of the conference games could be troubling for this team if they don't find offense quickly.
The Fighting Illini have lost all three Big Ten road games, all of which they were projected to lose, which may not seem too troubling until one actually looks into losses. A loss against the Michigan Wolverines on the road exhibited a blown 13 point lead by the Illini, the Buckeyes forced the Illini to hoist three pointers and turn the ball over a season-high twenty times, and most recently, the Huskers held an ice cold Illini team to 43 points on 27% shooting. All games have left fans shaking their heads and wondering why this team can't figure it out.
But a diamond in the rough, an upset win at home against the #9 ranked Maryland Terrapins, served as hope for this team with the absence of Rice. Malcolm Hill scored 28 and the Illini looked as if they could roll with the big dogs for the rest of the year. But a 43 point performance less than a week later killed that confidence. So as they sit on an 11-6 record, the question is whether or not Illinois has what it takes to make it to the NCAA tournament.
If the Illini want to make a move in the Big Ten standings, the opportunity is now. Four of the next six games for Illinois will be at home, where they are undefeated this season. Three of the four games Illinois should be able to win on their home floor (Purdue, Penn St, Rutgers), and a game against Indiana at the State Farm Center could go either way. The two road games are certainly winnable as well. The Illini will travel to face both Northwestern (1-2) and Minnesota (0-4), both of which have proven to be less than impressive in Big Ten Play thus far. If Illinois wants a shot at the tournament, they need 5 out of 6 of these games to go in their direction. This would improve their conference record to 6-4.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Without Rayvonte Rice, this offense could easily go stagnant, especially with transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks both shooting the ball less than 33% from the field. The Illini cannot keep settling for three point jump shots. They need to attack the rim and play through Nnanna Egwu in the post. Illinois also needs one of their point guards to step up and create offense for this team. Though Ahmad Starks looked as if he could fill the roll as a point guard in place of Tracy Abrams (torn ACL), he has been less than impressive at creating an offensive flow lately. Though Jaylon Tate had flashes in the win verses Maryland, he failed to create efficient ball movement and penetration against the Husker defense in their 53-43 loss. One of the two is going to need to lead the team and get their teammates open looks.
The final 8 games of the season will be tough for the Illini, but perhaps somewhere during that stretch (if all goes well), they can get Rice back into the lineup. During this stretch, Illinois faces Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Purdue on the road; they take on Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern at home. Wins in East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City are certainly difficult to come by, but the Illini could certainly steal one in West Lafayette to close out the regular season. As far as home games go, the Illini will need to win all four if they want a good shot at being in the field of 68.
This would put the Fighting Illini at 11-7 in the Big Ten and certainly in decent position to make the NCAA tournament. It is still too early to call whether or not the Illini will find themselves dancing come March, so this is no time for this team to give up and call this season a wrap. This is the Big Ten, and anything can happen.