What's Next

Feb 19, 2021

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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:

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
Rutgers (25)
Penn State (39)
Northwestern (68)
Indiana (28)
Nebraska (117)

Conference road games remaining
Minnesota (40)
Michigan State (69)
Wisconsin (15)
Ohio State (5)
Michigan (4)

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.


IlliniJoe81 on February 19, 2021 @ 10:50 AM

Last night showed that Ohio State and Michigan are both legit. Not necessarily better than us but not worse. So to have any chance at winning the conference we need to win at Michigan and only get one other loss.

I expect both missing games to be added back to the schedule so we'll have the full 20.

These last two games felt like a little bit of cruise control. Sort of like a relaxed jog before the final sprint to the finish. I think this team still has another level when Curbelo and Miller both start clicking (they both are adjusting to the freshman wall right now) and Kofi goes full beast mode (the fire is lit but we're still figuring out how to get him the ball without turning it over.)

Right now it is starting to sink in that this is a legitimate Top 10 team and that we are definitely going to the NCAA Tournament. I think there is still a little bit of fear because even though we know in our gut that Ayo is capable of a memorable run, nobody can predict these things in advance. That's what makes them so magical.

This season hasn't had its defining moment yet. You know it's coming. What we've seen in the last month is that this team is not going to be a disappointment. When we hit our 5th loss there was a lot of doubt about whether it would all fall apart. Now we see that recruiting is back on track so we're not a one-year wonder and that we're clearly in that double-bye Top 4 Big Ten tier.

Even though I wasn't a fan in 1989, I'm feeling shades of that. We likely won't get the Big Ten Championship (Michigan) and some other Big Ten team might even win it all (Ohio State or maybe even Iowa) but we will have the iconic players and the most memorable team. If Ayo hits a buzzer beater to take down unbeaten Baylor and send us to the Final Four, that's what you're talking about 16 years from now. We have that 16-year Final Four destiny just like we had the March to the Arch in 2005.

You can't look at NERDstats and predict something like that. It defies analytics. But that's what's magical about college basketball and that's why I'll be an Illini fan for life. This team is special and its destiny awaits. We all just feel it in our guts but we're afraid to believe it or speak it aloud because we've been in the wilderness for so long.

IlliniJedi on February 19, 2021 @ 12:06 PM

Undaunted needs to be the mindset of the Fighting Illini. If we are entertaining thoughts of getting to the final four then we are going to have to beat good teams on the way. Therefore I think we matchup will with Wisconsin and I want payback against the OSU for winning our our court. If the league office doesn't allow scUM to duck us again, I want to crush them.

danny on February 19, 2021 @ 02:26 PM

Has a date and time been set for a game with Michigan?

KnoxIllini2 on February 19, 2021 @ 03:45 PM

Unfortunately, no, and they still have a week off next. Hopefully that gets changed before the weekend is over.

IBFan on February 19, 2021 @ 08:59 PM

Dream, dream BIG! No losses for rest of this season....that includes BTT and NCAA!

Brave Illini on February 20, 2021 @ 08:18 AM

We could lose today or win by a lot. This team is so hard to understand, as a team. The parts often don't add up to the whole. It does seem that we will need solid play from Giorgi, Adam and Andre down the stretch in order to have any chance to win out.

Groundhogday on February 20, 2021 @ 11:34 AM

Agree that for more consistent play overall, we need more consistent contributions from the "supporting cast". We miss the reliable production from Feliz and Griffin last year. Curbelo and Miller are inconsistent freshmen. DaMonte has faded after a great start. Frazier seems unwilling to assert himself offensively. Etc... We depend too much on just two guys, hence the inconsistency.

Efrem on February 20, 2021 @ 09:59 AM

Not to be forgotten when it comes to the final standings - scUM and tOSU have some tough games left too. They play each other, us and Iowa. scUM has 2 games against sparty left too - and you know they'd love to ruin their conf titles chances

Yeah - we didn't play great the last couple games. But it's also a reminder there's no easy wins in the B1G, especially late in the season when everyone's seen each other play a lot

Brave Illini on February 20, 2021 @ 10:55 AM

Gophers shot 28 percent against us in the first game, but are shooting 40 percent on the season. Kofi was huge but Ayo only scored 10. So many variables could affect today's outcome.

Brave Illini on February 20, 2021 @ 04:48 PM

When we return to Minny on Nov. 6, may we see a similar margin of victory.

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