Illini Tough Enough to Respond

It wasn't pretty up in Madison Wednesday night. But Illinois is tough enough to respond and will make the NCAA Tournament.

Somebody's momma said there would be days like that.

It wasn't my mom. Mine keeps it positive. But even she couldn't spin Illinois' 95-70 loss at Wisconsin on Wednesday night.

We all lived it, so I won't dig too deep into the details. I picked the Badgers to win by eight. They were 15-0, had a good look and were playing at home. It was a pretty easy call to go with them.

Even then, I didn't see a 20-0 run taking place in the first half. Wouldn't have believed the game would be over before halftime. Couldn't have forecasted John Groce's largest losing deficit of his tenure.

It was bad, as bad as a conference game can be.

Two things came to my mind as the two teams played the string out late. A) Wisconsin is this good. B) Illinois isn't this bad.

We all know the Illini are a year away from running at optimal power. Next season, Rice, Abrams and Egwu will be seniors. Cosby, Starks and Paul will be eligible. The freshmen won't be freshmen. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

For now, Illinois has a bunch of tough dudes that scrap for points, play tough defense and will usually be a tough out.

Usually.

Rice and Abrams were tougher than Sheehey and Ferrell, Frazier and Newbill. That's why Illinois started off 2-0.

But what happens when the tough guys find themselves opposite a bunch of tough guys? When there are more shooters to back up their tough guys? When those tough guys play defense with the same intensity as these tough guys? When your strength is their strength and they've got something else to throw out there too?

That's when you lose.

Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin are really good. It's going to be hard for Illinois to beat those teams. That's OK. It's going to be hard for anybody to beat those teams.

Obviously you don't want to lose by 25. That's never a good look. It's up to Groce and his captains to find the lessons, enforce the takeaway and move on. They've got to take it one day at a time.

I don't.

I've been wondering since the summer if Illinois would make the NCAA Tournament this season. I knew Groce would get a pass if he didn't. But that's not his mentality, and the NIT is not something I'm interested in covering.

So I look at the next 15 games. And I see a team with a manageable path to the Big Dance.

It's not this easy, but let's say the Illini don't lose to the bottom tier. Four games against Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern get them to six conference victories.

From there, four or five more wins would guarantee a seat at the table. Three might even do it, although the hill does get noticeably steeper.

We could concede five losses to the 1 percenters – the Spartans, Buckeyes and Badgers. But would a win at home against any of the three surprise you? It wouldn't me. Even Nick Saban loses every now and then.

Iowa and Michigan aren't wealthy, but both are rich. These are teams that a tough bunch like Illinois could use as a resume builder. There's a trio of games against these two foes, two at home. Don't tell me Illinois drops all three. I won't hear that.

Then it comes down to the middle class. The key will be taking care of business at the State Farm Center against Purdue and stealing one or two on the road versus Indiana and Minnesota.

Is it possible? Definitely. Will it be tough? Oh yeah. But this Illinois team has the toughness to do it. And it has the toughness to respond to an appalling loss in the proper manner.

If I'm right about that, Groce's team will answer and will reach the Tournament. That would be two years in a row where the man got the absolute most out of his team, squeezed every ounce of winning achievable.

Wednesday counted as only one loss, a loss that was already built into the budget.

The Illini can still get where they want to go. And now there's another chip on their shoulder to help push them there.


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