With the conference season heading into its final lap, the parody in the middle of the Big Ten standings is becoming more and more apparent. For teams floating in the middle of the conference like Illinois (7-5), games like Thursday night's overtime win over Michigan are going to be crucial if there is any hope for an Illini run in the Big Ten tournament and an NCAA tournament bid.
As of now, Illinois holds the seventh spot in conference standings. As the Big Ten currently sits, the teams are so tightly packed together that while Illinois is one game out of second place, they are at the same time only two games ahead of falling to 11th. Four of Illinois' final five conference games are against teams with relatively similar positions in conference standings: Purdue (8-4), Michigan State (8-4), Iowa (6-5) and Nebraska (5-7). These games can make or break the Illini, as they can for the other teams trying to plead their cases for an NCAA tournament bid.
A team that looked to be slowly falling out of the running for a bid a few weeks ago, Illinois is now on an upswing. After winning three straight games, including on the road at Michigan State, the Illini welcomed back senior guard Rayvonte Rice for the first time since a hand injury in early January was followed by a three game suspension. Before his injury, Rice was the heart of the Illini on both ends of the court. Though he only scored four points, Rice was a pivotal defensive factor in the final minutes of regulation against Michigan in Illinois' fourth straight victory.
Coach John Groce has yet to reinstate transfer guard Aaron Cosby, who was suspended at the same time as Rice, also following an injury. The absence of Cosby and Rice has forced players sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to step up and take on a more dominant role for the team. Adding Rice's experience to a team that has been forced to mature and fill different roles could form an Illini team that has yet to show itself off this season. This is not the same team that suffered underwhelming losses to schools like Oregon and Minnesota. This Illini team is headed on a track that may surprise a lot of people that counted them out earlier in the season. Depending on how they approach four out of five winnable games, the team that looked to have fallen off the radar earlier in the season could actually solidify a Selection Sunday appearance.
Illinois is of course only one example, but with the tightness of the middle of the Big Ten standings, it could lead to a wild finish down the stretch for the conference. As it stands right now, Joe Lunardi has predicted seven Big Ten teams heading to the Big Dance: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Considering that many of these teams matchup with each other during the remainder of the season, there is a lot to gain or lose.
The most important aspect could be securing seeding in the Big Ten Tournament, especially with an extra day of play with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the conference. Anything can change the competitiveness of a team. Sometimes injuries can be a good thing and in the case of Illinois, it looks like it has worked out pretty well for the Illini.