The term “must win” is something that’s probably tossed around too often in sports. We often get so carried away with the events in real time that we lose sight of their impact on a season or team as a whole. We may think something’s crucial at the time, only to find out later that it wasn’t all that consequential.
But for Illinois basketball, the time is now.
And for head coach John Groce, it’s time to show up.
Illinois enters this weekend amidst one of its best runs of the last few years. The Illini are coming off four straight wins, including two wins against top 100 opponents in North Carolina State and VCU and a top 150 win against a feisty Central Michigan team.
Feelings are high among the Illini faithful, and rightfully so.
But continuing that run is about to get far more difficult. Not only does Illinois get BYU on a neutral court on Saturday, but the Illini will follow that up with two games away from home against Missouri and Maryland. All three teams having winning records this season and both BYU and Maryland figure to be legitimate NCAA Tournament contenders by season’s end.
And that’s just the beginning. Illinois will follow up its game against Missouri with eight straight games against teams ranked 78 or better on KenPom (Illinois sits at No. 68) and with seven of those games against 2015 NCAA Tournament teams and four coming on the road.
KenPom’s pregame odds reflect just how difficult this run could be as well. During that eight-game stretch, Illinois figures to be an underdog in six games, including three where the Illini have 23 percent odds or less. In short, the odds of Illinois making it through its next 10 games undefeated (or even close) are pretty slim.
But what does that mean for Illinois’ postseason chances?
The simple truth is that nobody can be completely sure about what this upcoming stretch means for Illinois. Trying to speculate what December and January games mean in March is always a tricky undertaking. Nobody can feel confident about how any teams will finish down the stretch.
However, there are some major reasons to believe that this upcoming stretch will decide the season for Illinois. To start, if Illinois is going to make up ground in its quest for the NCAA Tournament, this is where it needs to happen. After all, Illinois needs wins against good teams. It doesn’t need to rack up wins against teams like Nebraska, Penn State, and Rutgers. That won’t really improve its resume.
Additionally, some of Illinois’ most unpredictable games come during this stretch. Stealing a road win at Indiana or Purdue will be tough, but beating BYU, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State? That’s more than reasonable and Illinois gets seven of its next 10 games against those teams.
Winning all seven of those games is pretty unlikely (we’re talking lottery type odds), but if Illinois could go 4-3, it would be a massive boost to its postseason hopes. Illinois would then likely be sitting at 13-8 with the vast majority of its toughest games in the rear-view mirror. At that point, even if Illinois only won the games where its favored by KenPom, it would be sitting at 19-12 by season’s end.
Even if that doesn’t get you into the NCAA bracket, you’re right there. And still would have some opportunities in the Big Ten Tournament.
Whether Illinois can take care of business in this next run remains to be seen, but if Illinois is truly going to make noise under John Groce and make a postseason push, it needs to come now. The clock is ticking and we’ll see what Illinois can do with it.