2012 Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball
The Illini could be a tough out in the Big Dance. If they make it in.
It is now February 8 th, and wow, how quickly things can change in a month.
Illinois has gone just 1-4 since Brandon Paul went nuts and poured in 43 points on just 15 (15!) shots against the Buckeyes. That resume-building win has been followed by losses to Minnesota and Penn State on the road, and Wisconsin and Northwestern at home. The only win in this dismal stretch was the offensive (yes, viewers of this game were offended while watching it) debacle that was a 42-41 home victory over Michigan State, pushing their record to 16-7 (5-5 in the Big Ten).
Like I said, how quickly things can change.
Illinois does have the talent to right this orange-tinged ship, however. What opposing coach wants to play (hypothetically) a 10 or 11 seed with two bona fide NBA prospects in do-everything guard Brandon Paul (15.1 ppg, 5 rpg, and 3.1 apg) and 7-footer center Meyers Leonard (13.3 ppg and 8 rpg)? The answer is simple: not too many.
This team has showed flashes of being able to compete with some of the best outfits in America. Beating Ohio State was a prime example, even if Brandon Paul had to turn into Superman to do so. Battling No. 4 Missouri right down to the wire in a 78-74 loss in the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St Louis was another indicator of their potential. A non-conference win at home over Gonzaga looks great, and a win at Maryland continues to look better as the Terps are playing much better lately, putting scares into both North Carolina and Duke and winning at Clemson.
With all that said, the problem remains that with Illinois’ remaining schedule, where are the wins going to come from? The Big Ten is an absolute gauntlet this season, forcing most every team to succumb to the schedule and go through the type of slide Illinois is in now. But at the end of the day, the selection committee needs to see that a team has been able to win games in their league.
These last eight games are not exactly what you might call conducive to winning. Illinois will likely need to go 4-4 (better yet, 5-3) between road games at Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin and home dates with Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan to like their chances of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. Anything less and they are going to have to do some serious damage at the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance of being picked.
To successfully navigate through home stretch, the Illini will need much more out of 5 th year senior point guard Sam Maniscalco. In the five games he’s played since returning from an injury, the Bradley transfer has totalled an astonishing three total points despite averaging nearly 21 minutes per game. Improved consistency from former stud recruit DJ Richardson would also surely be welcomed by Bruce Pearl. The junior guard scored in double figures in 13 of his first 15 games, but has only managed to score 10 or more in two of his last eight contests.
Solid point guard play, the emergence of a third scorer, and any production from their bench are all necessary yet attainable goals for this team. Those factors coupled with the duo of Paul and Leonard give the Illini a chance to be a really solid team.
Generally, teams with below .500 conference records and only two good non conference wins don’t make it to the gold standard that is March Madness. If they get hot however, and do manage to get in, I will be very tempted (and will have a reasonable argument for any naysayers) to pick them to make a run to the second weekend of the Tournament. Over the next eight games they’ll need to change that “if” to a “when,” or else it won’t matter how potentially scary they can be as a double-digit seed. After all, the highest seed given in the NIT is only an 8.
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