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It's been forever since we've been able to talk Tourney seeds in February, so I'm going to enjoy this. Something about the ESPN anchor saying "Illinois will be back in the Tournament after missing the last six years" during the SC Top-10 segment last night (Trent's shot was #2) has me all fired up. There's been a lot of talk about the Big Ten Tournament seed (and the tiebreakers), but I want to talk NCAA Tournament seed.
OK, I'll at least slap together a paragraph on BTT seed. As I tweeted last night, this is the least I've cared about the BTT seed in I don't know how long. Not only because we no longer need BTT wins for a chance to get to the right side of the bubble, but because the Big Ten is so even this year and a matchup against the 2-seed is similar to a matchup against the 10-seed. I realize that we can improve our NCAA seed with some BTT wins, and we'll get to that in a minute, but as far as "man I hope we win this one to lock up the double-bye in the BTT", I don't find myself caring that much? I'd love to win the BTT, but I'm so laser focused on "Illinois Basketball - back in the NCAA Tournament again" that I kind of just want to get the BTT out of the way.
(Someone remind me of this when we're tied in the second half of a Saturday BTT semifinal and all I want in life is that BTT trophy.)
With that out of the way, let's talk NCAA Tournament. In the preview back in November, I wrote "flip 12-21 to 21-12". I think I also said that 21-12 felt like a 7-seed. My "goal" for this season - my break-even point - was a 10-seed. I wanted to get back to the NCAA Tournament and I wanted to not be sweating on Selection Sunday. 10-seed is a scenario where you're safely in and are kind of hoping you don't slide up to the 9 because everyone hates the 8/9 game. I think we have that safely covered.
But I'm not sure we have it covered to the point where the 7-seed or 6-seed is locked up. In fact, in the Bracket Matrix right now (100 bracketologist brackets all averaged together), we're an 8-seed. We have the easiest schedule of the 14 Big Ten teams in these final five games, so that number will likely rise for us if we take care of business, but right now, we're on that 8-9 line and would have to play a one-seed in the second round.
Which, I guess isn't all that bad? Everywhere you look this season, college basketball analysts are all talking about how there's no great teams and how you might see a 5-seed win it all. Teams like Baylor and Kansas look great, but I don't think there's a dominant team out there. In my mind, either team in the 2017 final (Villanova & North Carolina) would roll through this field winning every game by 15+. This feels like a 2011 kind of season (3-seed UConn beat 8-seed Butler in the final). So if we did fall on the 8/9 seed across from San Diego State or Gonzaga, I'm not scared of that matchup like I would be against 2017 Villanova.
(Can I just pause here to say that I cannot wait for Selection Sunday? Writing the paragraph above I thought about how we'll get to stare at the TV waiting for the word "Illinois" to pop up and we haven't been able to do that since 2013. I seriously cannot wait.)
Maybe we should go about it this way: what's our ceiling and what's our floor? We'll toss out "win the rest of our games and win the Big Ten Tournament" as well as "lose the rest of our games and end up in a play-in game" and talk about more realistic scenarios.
Let's say the ceiling is five more wins. That's either a 4-0 finish to the season (ending up 14-6 in the Big Ten) plus one BTT win, or a 3-1 finish (lose at Ohio State, probably) and then 2-1 in the BTT. In the first scenario we're 23-10 and in the second scenario we're 23-11. I think both of those probably grab a 5-seed? Maybe a 4-seed? 23-10 plus 14-6 in the toughest conference in the country really might land a 4-seed. Yes, we're still held back by the Miami and Missouri losses (plus the crazy-soft non conference schedule), so I don't think we could dream any higher, but maybe a 4-seed is possible in that scenario?
Again, we're talking ceiling here. I don't think we're capable of winning the next seven games, but maybe 6-1 is possible? That's the dream scenario.
The floor is probably a 10-seed? That would mean splitting the home games (Iowa and Indiana), splitting the road games (Northwestern and Ohio State), and losing in the first round of the BTT. That's 2 wins and 3 losses for a finish of 20-12. Or maybe, copying what I did above, maybe we go 1-3 to finish the season and then only win 1 BTT game. So that would be a 2-4 finish and 20-13.
Both of those feel like they'd be right around that 10-seed range. The committee loves road conference wins, and we already have wins at Purdue, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, and at Penn State. So at 20-12 in the toughest conference, perhaps they'd consider a 9-seed for us. But that finish probably lands a 10-seed.
I'm focused on a 6 or a 7. I think a 3-1 finish and then one BTT win gets us a 6-maybe-5 and a 3-1 finish and a BTT one-and-done gets us a 7-maybe-6. 13-7 in this Big Ten would carry a lot of weight, as would the roadkills, so I could see a bunch of bracketologists putting us as a 7 and then we get a 6.
And I love both of those lines. Six is always a dangerous spot because the threes can be beat. Sevens can be dangerous too because twos always have a flaw (see: Miami, 2013). Gotta beat the 11 or the 10, of course, but I love both of those lines.
Overall, though, I'll mostly be smiling and saying "I'm so happy to be here". It's been way, way too long. I seriously cannot wait for this.
I think I'll go.