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I've been writing too many long articles lately. I need to be able to get straight to the point more often. So that's what this one will be. A simple topic: There are five, maybe six games remaining. Four (or five) of them are on the road. What should we expect?
First off, a pause to reflect on where we are right now. Probably best summed up by the thing I tweeted the other day:
In my lifetime (I'm 48), years where Illinois has been ranked in the top-5 in February:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) February 15, 2021
That needs to be acknowledged and then acknowledged again. I started to really lose that around the time of the Maryland and Ohio State losses and a few friends helped me find it. Whatever happens, this season is up there with the greats. There are a lot of college basketball teams recruiting a ton of high-end recruits. Dozens of great coaches. It's really, really hard to build a great team. We have a great team.
We also need to remember where we've been. We made the Tournament 21 of 25 years from 1983 to 2007. Two of the years we didn't were NCAA sanctions-related, so 1996 and 1999 were the only two years we really "missed" the NCAA Tournament. Since then, we've made the Tournament 3 of 13 years. That really should be 4 of 13, because last year was an NCAA Tournament season, but the history books will show three Tournament appearances from 2008 to 2020: 2009, 2011, and 2013.
21 of 25 years
3 of 13 years
One last acknowledgement before moving on. With 11 Big Ten wins, we have locked up an over-.500 Big Ten record already. We didn't do that once the last 10 years. The last back-to-back winning Big Ten record was 2009 and 2010 (and in 2010, we didn't make the Tournament even though we were 10-8 in the Big Ten). We'll win at least 12 Big Ten games this year (likely several more), so maybe a better way to put all of this is to look at all of the seasons where we were four games over .500 in the conference. That's easy - we did it every season from 1999-2000 until 2005-06. And then a giant dip where would have given anything to just be on the right side of the bubble. And now two years clearly safe.
Acknowledged? ACKNOWLEDGED. I will now restrict myself to 15 minutes of typing for the remainder of this post. Wrangle my brain into being very concise.
Let's talk about what's next. The season can probably be framed this way. I'll include the current KenPom for each team:
Conference road games so far
Penn State (39)
Conference road games remaining
Michigan State (69)
Ohio State (5)
Given that we lost on the road to #25 and won on the road against #28 (in overtime), #39 (trailed 19-4 to start), #68 (trailed by 15 at the half), and #117 (in overtime), there's rough sailing ahead. I know the narrative this season is "road tests aren't as difficult as they used to be without fans in the stands", but they've proven to be difficult. We've yet to have a road cakewalk. Lost at Rutgers, were trailing by 15 at Penn State and at Northwestern before coming back to win, won in overtime at Indiana and Nebraska.
So I'd say the most likely outcome in those five road games is what - 2-3? The hope is 3-2 and the dream is 4-1? That's where my brain goes. I doubt the 1989 team or the 2005 team would win on the road in the final three road games against #15, #5, and #4, so given our road results so far, we can toss the pipe dream of 5-0 out the window. I think I'll settle at expecting 2-3, hoping for 3-2, and dreaming of 4-1.
Add to that a Senior Day home win over Nebraska and my "expectation", I guess, is a 3-3 finish which would mean 14-6 in the Big Ten. My hope is a 4-2 finish which would be 15-5. My dream - a 16-4 Big Ten record in which we started 5-3 and then somehow won 10 of 11 including massive road wins the final week.
My "hope" scenario would then be what Tyler set as his expectation before the season: 15-5. That seems right. Probably a 2-seed. 14-6... maybe that's a 3-seed? 16-4... feels like that would have to be a 1-seed because it would mean at least one win over Ohio State or Michigan.
I only have two minutes left. Time to close it out.
What's next? Next is the roughest part of our schedule. Even if we take care of business at Minnesota and Michigan State, we still have Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan left, all on the road. While I'd love to see us level-up and start winning these games on the road, our previous five road games suggest that this probably won't happen. So "what's next" is probably some losses and a finish behind Michigan or Ohio State (or both) in the Big Ten.
And then, hopefully, one final surge through the BTT and NCAAT.