Entering the 2016-’17 season, there was plenty of optimism about Illinois. While the team had underwhelmed in the two preceding seasons, many felt that the roster’s unique combination of experience and talent would finally be enough to push the Illini back into the NCAA Tournament and save head coach John Groce’s job.
Unfortunately, those dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled.
Despite a fast start, things (once again) came unraveled during Big Ten play. In particular, home losses to Minnesota and Penn State and losses to Rutgers and Michigan at the end of the season derailed what was once a hopeful season. Soon after the team’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois fired Groce.
However, that loss to Michigan won’t be this team’s final chapter. That’s because Illinois earned a bid to the NIT over the weekend. The Illini will start their NIT campaign on Tuesday night against Valparaiso at home. The game will be at 7:15 PM ET on ESPN2.
Here’s a look at what to expect in the NIT.
Thanks to an 18-14 overall record and a 8-10 record in Big Ten play, Illinois earned a two seed in this year’s NIT. As mentioned, the Illini will face a first round matchup against Valparaiso. The game will be played in State Farm Center.
During the season, Valparaiso posted an impressive 24-8 overall record and finished atop the Horizon League standings. Notably, the Crusaders recorded wins over Alabama, BYU, and Rhode Island. Both Alabama and BYU made this year’s NIT and Rhode Island qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
The key player for Valparaiso was forward Alec Peters. However, he was injured in early March and will miss the remainder of the season. The team’s remaining key player is Shane Hammink, who is another talented forward. He averaged 15.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and had an impressive 44.2 free throw rate.
On paper, Illinois will be favored significantly heading into this game. KenPom puts the spread at seven points and gives the Illini a 72 percent chance at victory. And that’s with Valparaiso’s numbers still benefitting from Peters’ statistical contributions. In other words, that’s probably an optimism outlook for the Crusaders.
However, one does have to worry about the mental makeup of an Illini team that lost its last two games of the season and just had its head coach fired. That will likely be the most important factor heading into this matchup.
If They Advance
Should Illinois do as expected and knock off Valparaiso on Tuesday, the Illini will move on and face either Utah or Boise State at home. On paper, Utah is a much stronger team than Boise State. While the Utes have some weaknesses, Illinois fans should be rooting for a matchup with Boise State.
If Utah advances, expect an interior battle thanks to Utah’s David Collette and Kyle Kuzma. Both have been really productive this season. The two players have offensive ratings above 110 and have dominated the team’s offensive possessions.
At that point, if Illinois won its second game, the team would likely be looking at a matchup against Illinois State or UCF. Additionally, Colorado could have an outside shot.
Obviously, the in-state angle would make a matchup with Illinois State the most intriguing. However, Illinois should be rooting against such a meeting. The Redbirds are 27-6 overall and were undefeated at home this season. Illinois would have to travel to Normal, if the matchup did occur.
After that, it’s hard to predict who Illinois could face in Madison Square Garden for the final four of the NIT. But Iowa, Clemson, and Alabama are the highest seeds in the bracket next to Illinois’, so expect one of those three.
Getting excited for the NIT isn’t an easy task. Illinois fans were hoping for much more entering this season. However, with some manageable first and second round matchups on the table, a deep NIT run isn’t off the table, if Illinois comes into the tournament with enough energy and desire.