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NCAA Tournament Report Card: Illinois, in or out?


Throughout the final months of the college basketball season, Athlon Sports will take a quick snapshot of key movers in the potential NCAA field. Who's moving up? Who's moving down? Who's on the bubble and who's off? What can we expect in the coming days from these teams?

Our next installment assesses Illinois in its first season John Groce. The former Ohio coach has proven he can win the big game, advancing the Bobcats to the round of 32 in 2010 and the Sweet 16 in 2012. That continued in Champaign.

Illinois started the season hot, going 12-0 and winning the Maui Invitational behind stellar play by Brandon Paul. By mid-December, the Illini struggled. Groce’s team lost to rival Missouri and started 2-7 in the Big Ten. Illinois’ NCAA Tournament resume was in question before a 74-72 win over Indiana when Tyler Griffey took an inbounds pass for an uncontested layup to defeat the top-ranked Hoosiers.

Here’s how Illinois looks with less than six weeks before Selection Sunday.

By the numbers

Record: 16-8, 3-7 Big Ten
RPI: 32
Strength of schedule: 5
Best wins: No. 12 Gonzaga, No. 13 Indiana, No. 15 Butler
Worst losses:No. 115 Purdue, No. 88 Northwestern

Reasons for optimism

In the numbers game: Illinois’ RPI (No. 32), strength of schedule (No. 5) and overall record (16-8) all check out as an NCAA Tournament team. Few teams have the quality wins Illinois has with four in the top 20 (Butler in Maui, Gonzaga on the road, Ohio State and Indiana). Despite eight losses, none of them are egregious. Illinois’ only loss outside the top 100 is on the road to Purdue.

On the court: Brandon Paul has played All-American-caliber basketball for stretches this season, including 21 points against Indiana on Thursday. D.J. Richardson has flourished as well in Groce’s up-tempo, three-point oriented offense, scoring 23 against the Hoosiers.

Related: Indiana-Ohio State a key game this weekend

Reasons for concern

In the numbers game: Those four big wins look great, but that conference record (3-7) does not. Illinois should be able to overcome a losing Big Ten record to make the field, but how bad can that league mark be before it eliminates Illinois? UConn made the field a year ago with an 8-10 record out of the Big East. Illinois could be in the same situation on Selection Sunday.

On the court:
Notice we mentioned Paul plays All-American-caliber basketball “for stretches.” The veteran guard can be one of the most frustrating guards in the country thanks to his inconsistency. When Illinois is making shots from three-point range, the Illini are tough to beat, but when they don’t, Illinois doesn’t have much of a backup plan. Illinois has shot 37.1 percent from three-point range in wins and 23.9 percent in losses.

Related: Feb. 7 NCAA Tournament projections and bubble watch

Looking ahead
The Big Ten is the toughest conference, and Illinois will have to play five of its last eight on the road. Three of those road trips are against Tournament locks Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. Win one of those, and Groce may sleep a little better before the Big Ten Tournament. Defeating Northwestern, who beat Illinois 68-54 in Champaign earlier this season, would be a nice statement, too. One thing Illinois perhaps can’t afford is a home loss. The remaining home slate will be against three of the bottom four teams in the league (Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska).

The verdict: NCAA Tournament
The conference record is ugly, but the rest of Illinois’ resume is strong enough to make the field. Four top-20 wins combined with no bad losses should be good enough to make the field. As long as Illinois sweeps its final home games and holds its own on the road, Illinois should be a Tournament team.