The Illinois win over No. 20 Purdue provided a much-needed punch of positivity to Illini basketball. But let's not get wrapped up with talk of "path to NCAA Tournament talk" quite yet. Illinois (9-8, 1-3 Big Ten) -- which ranks both No. 97 in the KenPom rankings and RPI -- has a lonnnnnnng way to go before we can recommence that discussion. After all the injuries and adversity, the rest of this season is mostly about regaining some momentum and restoring long-term hope. I thought if the Illini started Big Ten play 1-3 (it was a tough schedule after all), they'd give themselves a chance at that. The Purdue win could give Illinois a springboard into a winnable part of the schedule. Now, I compartmentalize the next six games. If Illinois wins four of them -- vs. Nebraska, at Indiana, at Minnesota, vs. Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin and at Rutgers -- a .500 Big Ten finish seems possible. KenPom favors the Illini in five of those games, though four of those are by four points or fewer. This stretch is still challenging for an Illinois team that has struggled against bad teams this season. But it's also a managable stretch for a team that has shown it can compete with most good teams. We'll soon find out if the Purdue win was a fluke or a sign of growth for John Groce's team and program.
The more I watch Minnesota, the more I think Illinois has four definitely-should-win Big Ten games remaining: Minnesota x2 and Rutgers x2. Based on what I've seen of them and their poor resumé, the Gophers (6-11, 0-5 Big Ten) are really the only conference team close to Rutgers' standard of stink. I don't know what's worse: Minnesota's talent or coaching. They don't have an identity and are undisciplined. They're pitiful defensively and not much better offensively. They're young and have little leadership from seniors Joey King and Carlos Morris. It'd be a huge disappointment if Illinois didn't steal a road win at The Barn.
Nebraska is an interesting matchup with Illinois. Both teams have a pair of veteran stars: Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn for the illini and Shavon Shields and Andrew White for the Cornhuskers (10-8, 2-3 Big Ten). White, a Kansas transfer, is putting up some monster numbers (17.3 ppg, 52.0% FG, 44.6% 3FG) for Nebraska and gives the Huskers a much-improved offensive punch. The Huskers are weak in the post, though, and have given up 77-plus points against their three quality Big Ten opponents (Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa). Besides Rutgers and Minnesota- -- the two Big Ten teams the Huskers beat -- Nebraska has the most weaknesses. Illinois must protect its homecourt on Saturday.
Penn State is probably the third worst team in the Big Ten. But I like the direction of Pat Chambers' program, and I'm happy the Nittany Lions were patient with him. The PSU job is one of the worst high-major jobs in the country and Chambers was 16-56 during conference play in his first four seasons in Happy Valley. But his teams always play hard. He's set the culture there. Now, he's starting to add players. He added two top-100 players in the Class of 2015 and welcomes in the No. 16 recruiting class in 2016. Illinois only has Penn State on the schedule once this season, the regular-season finale in Happy Valley. I'd expect it to be a battle.
Is Northwestern an NCAA Tournament team? A win over Wisconsin improved their record to 15-3. But both of those facts aren't what they seem. Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4 Big Ten0 is a weak team, like bottom six of the Big Ten kinda weak (maybe that's why Bo Ryan retired early, so his top-four Big Ten finish streak wasn't ruined). Wisconsin usually would be a huge resumé win, but the Badgers are No. 111 in the RPI. Northwestern (3-2 Big Ten) is No. 103 in the RPI, lower than Illinois -- which is No. 97 thanks to top-100 wins against Purdue (29) and Yale (87). The Wildcats still have no top-100 RPI wins. At this point, quality probably means more than quantity for Northwestern (though the 'Cats likely need to be at least 9-9 in the BIg Ten to have a chance at The Dance). Chris Collins' team and program is improved and gaining confidence. Alex Olah should return soon from injury -- though not having Vic Law this season certainly hurts. The 'Cats will have plenty of opportunities to get those quality wins, but they still must prove they can get them.
Back to Wisconsin, it was inevitable that they'd drop off. After all, the Badgers lost possibly the best player in their program's history in Frank Kaminsky, one of its most talented in Sam Dekker and two "glue guys" in Traevon Jackson and Josh Gaesser. I guess we should've seen this coming, but didn't you think Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes would keep this team in the top half of the Big Ten? But both have been really inefficient and haven't received much help from the inexperienced guys, outside of redshirt freshman Ethan Happ -- the Rockridge, Ill., native looks like a keeper. The Badgers still defend but struggle to score more than 65 against quality teams. Regardless, I doubt interim coach Greg Gard is the Badgers head coach next season. Ryan lifted Wisconsin's program to the point that athletic director Barry Alvarez would be foolish not to go through a national search for some big names (Tony Bennett? Gregg Marshall? Ben Jacobson? Archie Miller?).