Many have cast Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament even before the start of conference play. There's good reason to believe that the Fighting Illini won't be in the field come March. Illinois has lost 5 games this season, including home matchups to mid-major opponents in Chattanooga and North Florida. The Illini have yet to get a solid win and have given away close games in the second half of play. What if I said that the Fighting Illini still could make the NCAA Tournament! Like Jim Carey in Dumber and Dumber, "you're saying there's a chance?"
1. Remaining Non-Conference Schedule
Believe it or not, Illinois has just three games remaining in the non-conference slate of its schedule. Let's give the Illini the benefit of the doubt and say that they win the last three games. Illinois faces an easy UIC team at the United Center, a tricky South Dakota team that beat Minnesota at home, and Missouri in the annual Braggin' Rights Game. The game against Missouri should, as always, be a battle, but Illinois seems to be the slightly better team. If Illinois wins all three of these games, it has a non-conference record of 8-5 going into the holidays. Not ideal, but not awful.
2. Conference Home Games
Now let's take a look at conference home games that Illinois will play this season. The Fighting Illini will face Michigan, Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Rutgers, Indiana, and Minnesota on its home court at the State Farm Center. Illinois' home opener against Michigan will be tough, but let's just give the Illini the benefit of the doubt and say they're able to take down the Wolverines with the help of a home crowd. A home game against a soon-to-be Top Ten Purdue team will be a loss, but the Illini should be able to beat Nebraska at home.
Let's say that Illinois beats Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have been struggling a lot this year. Illinois hasn't beaten Wisconsin in forever, and the Badgers are starting to look like a legitimate team. Count that one as a loss. Let's say that in the remaining four games, Illinois is able to win three. The Illini easily beat Minnesota and Rutgers and steal one against either Indiana or Iowa. If Illinois' home portion of its schedule shapes out something like this, then the Illini will be 6-3, making their overall record 14-8.
3. Conference Away Games
Even more difficult than home games in the Big Ten, conference road games will be a bear for the Illini. On the road, Illinois faces Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Penn State. So let's just say Illinois gets really lucky and wins one at Ohio State. UTA and Louisiana Tech were able to do it, so maybe Illinois can too. From there, Illinois will have absolutely no chance of winning at Michigan State or at Indiana. The Minnesota road game will be one of those key swing games. If Illinois could win that game, it could help push it towards the bubble.
Let's assume that Illinois will be able to beat Rutgers on the road, and then an inner state rivalry against Northwestern will once again have to go in the direction of the Fighting Illini. Finishing the season, Illinois will lose road games to Wisconsin and Maryland, and then it might be able to steal a win over Penn State. This puts Illinois at 5-4 in conference road games. Overall, best case scenario, the Fighting Illini would be 19-12 on the season. Even then, Illinois is probably on the wrong side of the bubble.
Let's just say that it's a long shot for Illinois of they want to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Illinois must basically win all of the 50/50 games and even pull a few unexpected upsets here and there. I'm not one to say that it can't be done, but early in this college basketball season, it's fairly safe to say that the Fighting Illini won't be in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season.