Illinois is in a very recognizable position heading into the Big Ten tournament. Coming off of a loss at Purdue, the Illini are 19-12 and trying to find a way to break the NCAA tournament bubble. John Groce's team definitely needs at least one win to give it any sort of hope on Selection Sunday. But a second could possibly be what the Illini need to break the bubble.
The eighth seeded Illini will open the tournament facing No. 9 Michigan—each team starts the tournament with a bye. The teams split their matchups this season with overtime wins at home. Clearly, both games were competitive, but what is even more interesting is that Illinois was in position to close the deal against Michigan in the first matchup where they lost and Michigan was in position to win when they lost to Illinois. They truly were two very tight games that could have went either way.
The winner of this second round matchup will play top-seeded Wisconsin, who is trying to earn its right to a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. This would obviously be a tough game for any team.
With its current situation, Illinois' resilience is vital, which is why the Illini have chosen a bad time to lose any sort of momentum. In Saturday's loss to Purdue, Illinois started off the game looking like they would run right over the Boilermakers. But things changed at halftime, and Illinois looked like a completely different team in the second half. The loss at Purdue was mentally critical for the Illini, and they need to find a way to bounce back quickly.
In order for Illinois to makes a strong run in the Big Ten tournament, a couple of key players need to show why they have been key for Illinois this season.
Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill need to show up.
Illinois has won six of its last ten games. In the wins, Nunn posted double-digits for the Illini. In the four losses, he did not. At Purdue, Nunn only accounted for five of Illinois' points. Hill has been a major contributor to Illinois. But his two points in Illinois' loss at Iowa were detrimental. Not only are the two sophomores vital components of the Illinois roster statistically speaking, but when these two are down, they are almost invisible on both ends of the court. The issue with this is that the only Illinois player that tends to have stepped up in cases like this is Rayvonte Rice. The second-year transfer senior has contributed consistently in double digits, but one player can only do so much. Though transfer senior Ahmad Starks is also one of the Illini's leading scorers, his 5'9" height gives him trouble defensively.
Illinois has shown that it still can make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, but team's confidence needs to flip a switch, and fast. There is no doubt that Illinois needs at least one win in Chicago and likely more. That will start with a Thursday game against a Michigan team that has already played them tough twice this season. If they do win, they get a very tough Wisconsin team on Friday. Things will be very tough, but it will come down to whether or not its young talent is up for the challenge.