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A week ago I sat here and wrote how I was torn. We saw the Miami and Missouri games. We saw the struggle at home with Northwestern. A correction was likely with all these road games coming up. But then again, what if we're good?
Well, turns out we're good. Like, tied for first place in the Big Ten good. We can talk about the NCAA Tournament with confidence good. What do we do with that?
For me, I try to go back through all the things I've written. That informal Twitter poll I put up asking how everyone thought we'd do over this current eight-game stretch. The post where I broke out those "if we win this game, we'll probably lose game, so I'm hoping to go 1-1 in those two games" groups of games. Let's go back through all of that.
We'll start with the post I called The Rest Of The Way. Here's how I broke it out:
Beat Northwestern and Nebraska at home, lose on the road at Michigan and Ohio State.
So 2-2 during those four games. The odds of beating Ohio State on the road are similar to the odds of losing to Nebraska at home. Walk away from those four games at 2-2 and we're on track.
Results so far: 2-0. Granted, Michigan and Ohio State, ranked #5 and #2 at one point this season, have turned out to be... not top-5 teams. With the way the last few weeks have played out (since I wrote that post), I really should have had Iowa in this "yeah, we're not winning that road game" group. Still, 2-0 so far, almost certainly 3-1, and possibly 4-0?
Fairly certain we'll beat Indiana and Minnesota at home, fairly certain we'll lose to Purdue and Iowa on the road.
This was another "2-2 is acceptable in those four games" grouping. If we lose to Indiana at home, we're going to have to beat Iowa on the road to make up for it and stay on track for the NCAA Tournament.
Results so far: 1-0, with the only result being one of the "fairly certain we'll lose" games. If we beat Minnesota in Champaign on Thursday, we'll reach 2-0 in this category as well (with two games to play, one at home). This is really helping me see just how massive these two road wins were this week.
Road game we'll likely win (Northwestern) vs. home game we'll likely lose (MSU)
Haven't played either game yet. The "hope" was for 1-1.
The four games that determine what kind of season we have
Maryland in Champaign
Rutgers in Piscataway
Penn State in State College
Iowa in Champaign
Again, haven't played any of these games yet, so this exercise is starting to feel premature. Perhaps I should look at it this way:
I was pointing to those four games as determining whether we'd go 9-11 (if we lost all four) and miss the Tournament, go 11-9 (if we went 2-2) to get to the right side of the bubble, or 13-7 and be certainly in and playing for seed (if we won all four). By winning these two games this week, we increase the likelihood of going 3-1 in both of the first two categories. And if that's the case, then a worst-case-scenario in my Four Games at the end (going 0-4 in those games) would mean we'd be 11-9 and maybe looking at a 9-seed or 10-seed.
Or, just look at it this way, since I've completely overcomplicated this. We have seven wins. Pick four games to get to 11 and be certainly in the Tournament and then playing for seeding:
Win those four, lose every other game (we won't lose every other game), and we're above .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2009/10.
Once more for the people in the back.
At this point, with six home games still to play, we're at "win four total games to finish above .500 in the Big Ten for the first time in ten years".
I'm not even sure why I'm thinking this way anymore (bracketing games trying to find the path to the Tournament and then a higher seed). I should be talking about winning the Big Ten.
Maybe the other analysis will help. My little "this 5-2 start has been fun but we might go 1-7 over the next eight games" Twitter poll. At the time, it was likely that we'd only be favored in one of the next eight games (Minnesota in Champaign).
I tweeted that I thought we might go 2-6 in those eight games but that I was hoping for 3-5. Go 3-5 in those games, then finish 4-1, and we'd be an incredible 12-8 in the Big Ten. 3-5 was the dream. (We're already 2-0.)
Someone tweeted at me to say that if this is an NCAA Tournament team they'll go 5-3 in that stretch, and I quote-tweeted it to say "if we go 5-3 in these eight games, we'll probably be a 3-seed". That would mean 5-2 start, 5-3 middle, 4-1 finish, so 14-6 in this crazy Big Ten (which might win the conference?). Well, win on Thursday (in the easiest game of that eight-game stretch) and then we'd need to go 2-3 in these five games to get to 5-3:
at Penn State
So this seems simple. If we win the next three home games (a massive undertaking with Maryland and Michigan State on the schedule), we could begin to discuss winning the Big Ten and getting that 3-seed. Perhaps even a 2-seed? I'm getting ahead of myself.
Wait, am I? With these two road wins this week, we're not only in first place in the Big Ten, we're in first place with road wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan. I think I've figured out how to best illustrate this. Let's talk road wins.
Illinois: 3-2 on the road with wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan. Remaining road games (5): Iowa, Rutgers, Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State.
Michigan State: 2-2 on the road with wins over Northwestern and Minnesota. Remaining road games (6): Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, Penn State.
Maryland: 2-3 on the road with wins over Northwestern and Indiana. Remaining road games (5): Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Rutgers.
Iowa: 1-3 on the road with a win over Northwestern. Remaining road games (6): Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois.
Rutgers: 1-3 on the road with a win over Nebraska. Remaining road games (6): Michigan (neutral), Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue.
(Yes, Michigan moved their "home" game against Rutgers to that Super Saturday thing in Madison Square Garden.)
I think this brings us to where I wanted to be with this post. I think this is the best way to frame it. Iowa already lost at Nebraska and might only get one more road victory (at Minnesota) to finish the conference schedule with two road wins; Illinois already has three road wins with Northwestern still to come. Michigan State lost at Purdue and Indiana and still has to go Wisconsin, Maryland, Penn State, Illinois, and Michigan.
I probably need to stop talking about "here's what we need to do to get to 11-9 and assure ourselves a Tournament spot". I need to focus in on the next two weeks. Even if we only go 1-1 this week (home for Minnesota, at Iowa), because of our road wins so far, the two home games against Maryland and Michigan State become an opportunity to take complete control of the Big Ten race.