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Can Illinois Use The Big Ten Tournament To Make The NCAAs?

What can the Illini accomplish in Washington, D.C.?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

This season ended up being another season in which Illinois hovered around mediocrity.

The Illini’s 18-13 (8-10) record marks the fourth consecutive season in which Illinois has won less than 20 total games and 10 conference games.

It could be only a matter of time until John Groce gets the boot. Especially considering that Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan, Illinois’ two leading scorers, will be graduating. The Illini have been stuck in neutral for far too long and if the Illini miss the NCAA Tournament yet again, it could be Groce’s time to leave. Despite an impressive incoming recruiting class, that includes two ESPN100 players, the patience for Groce could very well be up.

The good news is that with a solid finish to the regular season (excluding the momentum-killing loss to Rutgers), Illinois finds itself deep in the NCAA bubble conversation. However, in order to have any confidence about making it, Illinois will need a win or two (at least) in this year’s Big Ten Tournament.

An at-large bid is nothing to bank on for the Illini. But, Illinois’ recent demonstration of getting hot in conference play led some to believe that the Illini are close to earning an at-large bid. CBSSports believes Illinois will be the closest team to making the NCAA Tournament. Bleacher Report also lists the Illini as the “Fourth Team Out”.

Can Illinois do enough in the Big Ten Tournament to break its three year March Madness drought?

Let’s have a look.

Opening Round

Because of the Illini’s solid finish to regular season play, in which they won five of their final seven games, they won’t have to compete in the opening round.

Illinois earned an eight seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will play Michigan on Thursday.

The Illini split their two meetings with the Wolverines this season.

When Michigan visited State Farm Center, Illinois had little trouble earning a victory. The 85-69 win was tied for the largest margin of victory in Big Ten play for the Illini this season. Illinois also held Mo Wagner to only six points. This was the German product’s second lowest scoring total since conference play commenced.

When the Illini faced Michigan on the road, the Wolverines collected a 66-57 victory. Hill was Illinois’ only scorer to reach double-figures in the defeat. The Illini were ice cold from three point range as well, converting 2-12.

Both teams have played particularly well, as of late. Michigan has won six of its last eight games.

The Wolverines are a more balanced team and an all around better team in terms of scoring, defense, and defensive rebounding.

Michigan will be favored to beat Illinois in the third matchup between the two teams.

If They Advance

If Illinois pulls off the slight upset over Michigan, it will need to win three more games in order to capture the Big Ten Tournament title.

First, the Illini would have to get through Purdue, the No. 1 seed and Big Ten Tournament juggernaut.

In the only regular season matchup between Illinois and the Boilermakers, the Illini suffered their second biggest blowout of the season.

Granted, the game was in Purdue. But, Illinois wasn’t even in the game for 10 minutes. The Boilermakers began the game on a 21-9 run and coasted to an easy 91-68 win.

Yes, Illinois finally showed us that they can win a few in a row recently. But, there is no chance in hell it can contain Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards, and Isaac Haas.

The three big men each had a field day when previously playing Illinois. Swanigan, to no surprise, contributed a 22 point and 10 rebound double-double. Edwards scored 11 points on 4-6 shooting. Haas also matched his high in scoring within Big Ten play this season, adding 24.

I know the Big Ten has been extremely unpredictable this season, but again, Illinois won’t even sniff a single-digit margin if they make it to the quarterfinals.

If the Illini somehow manage to take down Goliath, by defeating the Boilermakers, they will most likely play Minnesota or Michigan State.

Though Illinois actually beat the Spartans recently and came close against Minnesota, let’s see if they can actually get there.

If the Illini make the championship it looks like they will square off against Maryland, Northwestern, or Wisconsin.

Overall

While playing either of those teams is hard as well, Illinois’ toughest task of the Big Ten Tournament will be beating Purdue in the quarterfinals if they make it that far.