Coming into the 2014-15 season the Illini were one of the many teams pinned smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten, a program that could trend back into relevancy or fall into the NIT once again. That idea didn't change much prior to conference play, either, with the Illini losing three games to quality opponents (Villanova, Oregon, Miami) and adding two solid wins versus Baylor and Missouri.
Of course things took a quick noise dive when Big Ten play started, as the Illini couldn't overcome an energized Michigan team led by unlikely hero in Aubrey Dawkins and the introduction for new football head coach Jim Harbaugh. Heading into the season a loss in Ann Arbor wouldn't have been an issue, but with the way things have gone for Michigan it wasn't exactly a game that made Illinois fans feel great about the state of their team. That of course was followed by a double digit loss to Ohio State and then the real loss for Illinois...star Rayvonte Rice broke his hand at practice and would be sidelined indefinitely.
To highlight how important Rice has been for the Illini it should be noted that he led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, steals and three point shooting (excluding Austin Colbert and Mike LaTulip, who have shot a combined ten treys this year). The team's leader, Rice was commonly the first (and at times only) scoring option for the Illini outside of Malcolm Hill and made plays on both sides of the ball all over the floor. At 0-2 in conference play, the loss of Rice for at least a few weeks looked like a potential breaking point.
Then last night happened. One thing that the Maryland program has commonly done throughout the Mark Turgeon era is add impressive wins and follow them up with head scratching losses. This unfortunate trait reared it's ugly head once again as the 11th ranked Terrapins came into Champagne and put up a massive dud in the second half. Illinois took advantage of Maryland's horrible night from the free throw line (55.6% on 18 attempts) and an atrocious second half from star Melo Trimble, knocking off Maryland by seven points late last night. While it's only one game, the reality is the Illini may have saved their season. Or at least for the time being that is.
If Illinois had lost they would have fell to 10-6 and 0-3 in conference play, a position difficult to climb out of when you consider the loss of Rice and the need to have a strong run in the Big Ten due to the conference's weakened state. The win against Maryland is huge for John Groce and company because not only does it add a third impressive win to the resume, but it shows that Illinois can compete and win games without Rice for the immediate future. Even more so if the team can get Malcolm Hill to play like he did last night, leading the team with 28 points while also adding seven rebounds in an explosive performance.
Even better if you're an Illinois fan? The schedule for the next few weeks is entirely manageable:
- at Nebraska (01/11)
- at Northwestern (01/14)
- Indiana (01/18)
- Purdue (01/21)
- at Minnesota (01/24)
- Penn State (01/31)
- Rutgers (02/03)
Over the next seven games the Illini will face the three worst teams in the conference (Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers) and draw two more struggling programs (Nebraska, Minnesota). The two best teams they'll face until Michigan State in February will be Indiana and Purdue, both beatable opponents that will have to travel to Champagne. Of course Illinois could inexplicably drop some of these games, but they'll have a legitimate chance to win every night here and could be favored in at least five or six of these outings (if not all of them). That means the Illini are in solid shape to keep the ship afloat until Rayvonte Rice returns from an injury, with the senior possibly coming back before the schedule ramps up in early February.
If the Illini can take care of business over this upcoming stretch and return to form with Rice back in the lineup, there should be a realistic chance of a NCAA Tournament appearance. The February schedule will be rough as they'll face Michigan State twice, travel to Wisconsin and Iowa and host Michigan...all in a 16 day span, but the back end of the schedule is relatively soft with Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue closing out the season (the first two are also at home).
There's a lot of basketball to play and the unpredictable nature of the Big Ten means we'll likely see a lot of teams go up and down throughout the remainder of the season, but the Illinois victory last night against Maryland was huge for an Illinois program that needed a break. Now Groce's team should be extra motivated as they know they can hang with one of the conference's best teams without their best player. While some teams are quickly fading out of relevancy (Minnesota, Penn State), Illinois could be a potential sleeper when it comes to the Big Ten sneaking another team into the Tournament in March.