Needless to say, this hasn't exactly been the prettiest season for John Groce and his Fighting Illini. After losing to Penn State on Sunday afternoon, Illinois dropped to 13-19 (5-13 B1G) on the season and secured the #12 seed in the Big Ten tournament. The Illini enter Indianapolis without the likelihood of any postseason appearance, but is there a chance that they can win a couple games and end up impacting the field?
Their first game will be against Minnesota, the #13 seed. The Golden Gophers (8-22, 2-16 B1G) are coming off a loss to the previously conference winless Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a team that many believe to be one of the worst the Big Ten has ever seen. However, it is important to take into account that Minnesota had three players; Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer, were suspended last week for the rest of the season following a series sexually explicit videos that were posted on Dorsey's Twitter account. While head coach Richard Pitino has refrained from deeper discussion regarding the topic, none of the three will be on the Gophers' roster for the tournament.
For the Fighting Illini, this is key. Mason is Minnesota's leading scorer (13.8 PPG), and Dorsey and McBrayer both play key roles off the bench. This not to mention that senior Joey King, the team's vocal leader and third-leading scorer, is likely done for the year as well with a foot fracture. The Golden Gophers appear to be an shambles, and for an Illinois team that had struggled for much of the season, this may be the type of cupcake matchup they needed.
When these two teams met in Champaign for Illinois' Senior Night last weekend, the Fighting Illini were able to take care of business 84-71. Kendrick Nunn scored 25 points on 3-6 from three-point range and Malcolm Hill added 22. Both of these juniors will need to have a solid conference tournament if Illinois wants to go anywhere. Hill is coming off a stellar 39-point, 13-rebound performance against Penn State on Sunday and continues to impress as one of the best scoring threats in the Big Ten. Hill has the potential to go off any night, and Indianapolis might provide him with the chance to do just that.
If the Illini were to beat Minnesota, they would then be tasked with taking on the #5 seed Iowa Hawkeyes. Yes, you read that correctly; Iowa is the #5 seed in the tournament. This is either a testament to the strength of the Big Ten or the gravity of the skid that the Hawkeyes have been on as of late. Iowa looks to still be around a 4/5 seed in the NCAA tournament, let alone in the conference tourney.
Iowa is a team that Illinois struggled against immensely in their lone meeting with each other this season, dropping one at home to the Hawkeyes 77-65. Jarrod Uthoff is one of the most difficult players to guard in the conference, and without a Leron Black (suspended indefinitely) to guard him, it is going to be difficult to prevent Uthoff from going off. Michael Finke will likely be given the assignment of defending the first team All-B1G caliber wing, but even still the Hawkeyes have more than one option. In the earlier meeting between these two squads, Peter Jok was the leading scorer with 23 points. Illinois will need to have an exceptional game out of Hill, Nunn and likely Jalen Coleman-Lands if they want any shot at taking down one of the top teams in the conference.
The good news for head coach John Groce is that this will not impact his job status going forward. Previously thought to be on the hot seat, new Illinois AD Josh Whitman has given Groce his vote of confidence, at least through the 2017 season. Whether Illini fans like it or not, this tournament will not make or break the future of this Illinois program.
The Fighting Illini have a shot to make some noise if they take down Iowa, but outside of that this looks to be another disappointing season for the boys from Champaign. Yet even so, the smallest chance of an upset is why you play the game.