USA Today // Marc Lebryk

Piper: What's at stake at the B1G tourney?

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down what's on the line for the Illini and John Groce at the Big Ten tournament this week.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Months of questions will finally boil down to a week that provides answers, as the Illini have begun their business trip out in Washington D.C. for the Big Ten tournament.

Back in early February, the season itself could be characterized as a prolonged and painful wait for the inevitable. But Illinois managed to flip that script from a slow death to an undeniably exciting revival with a four-game winning streak.

Then, Rutgers happened. The Illini held a 10-point lead in the second half. But down the stretch, their offense was poorly planned and executed. And their defense couldn't stop one of the nation's worst offenses.

It was a complete 180 from Wednesday night's emotional win on Senior Night against Michigan State that left everyone in Illini nation happy and hopeful. Even those who had given up on the season and cast their ballot early on their John Groce judgement couldn't help but crack open that close-minded door and take a peek.

But Saturday's loss slammed that door closed again for many and rekindled some PTSD for a fan base that is so hungry for a consistent winner. And it's left everyone exhausted by the speculation and begging for the answer.

Losing to the worst team in the Big Ten with everything on the line is extremely disappointing. Some would say damning. Deflating. Or was it?

Despite the black eye with everyone watching, there the Illini sit on the 'first four out' line for various bracket experts. As more teams lose, it seems like Illinois could be just one win away. Wouldn't make it a guarantee. And even if it ultimately did, does that mean Illinois keeps a coach for reaching a relatively moderate benchmark in Year Five?

Oh, the anxiety.

The external solace of this week is that the ultimate fate will come to fruition one way or another. Inside the program and Josh Whitman's smartly-wired brain, the pressure is on. Where will this team end up? What will the boss at Bielfeldt choose to do about it?

We are literally days away from those answers.

Do you dance?

For the fourth time in five years, Groce will have his team within arm's reach of the Big Dance when his team takes the floor at the Big Ten tournament.

The problem is that the Illini have only managed to grasp that opportunity once during Groce's tenure. And the other two times it was there, Illinois' dance ticket was torn up by one of John Beilein's Michigan teams.

Beilein has pretty much owned Groce since the two squared off in the Big Ten, as he sports an 8-2 record. And once again, the Wolverines stand at the doorstep between Illinois and that party where the program once got VIP treatment.

Michigan is hot right now. They've won six of their last eight games, including wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and a blowout of Michigan State. That's the bad news.

The good news is that Michigan would be another tournament-worthy win on Illinois' resume. And the number of top-100 wins the Illini possess compared to only one bad blemish -- in the midst of a group of teams with their fair share of warts -- has this team very much alive. If they can win.

"It's not dead for Illinois right now," Yahoo! Sports' bracketologist Brad Evans said on the Tay & J Show on Monday. "Here's the good news: A lot of teams that are around the Fighting Illini right now are losing. Teams that were on the bubble that haven't really boosted the profile."

Illinois State lost. Georgia Tech lost. Syracuse lost. Clemson lost. Cal has tanked. That helps, and they could use a little bit more from teams like Vandy and Kansas State.

But once again, the Illini have to help themselves.

"For Illinois to feel somewhat comfortable -- and I'm using that loosely -- getting in the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid, you've got a magic number of two," Evans said on Monday.

Reaching that magic number would mean beating top-seeded Purdue on Friday. And that's a bad matchup for the Illini. Most teams in the conference would say that too. And Illinois is 0-5 all-time against the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

But Evans followed those comments by saying that just a win on Thursday could be enough.

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It might only get you to Dayton for a play-in game. But it would get your name called on Selection Sunday for the first time in four years.

That's one heck of an opportunity for a team that had no business losing in Piscataway. And it's a heck of an opportunity for a coach that looked doomed in early February.

Who's the head man?

But let's say Illinois doesn't get it done.

Maybe it's because of a missed gimme like the one by Tracy Abrams against Michigan in 2014. Or the Wolverines take them to the woodshed a la 2015. Or maybe somewhere in between.

Although, the Illini have the travel advantage with what Michigan went through on Wednesday with their plane hightailing off the runway due to the wind at takeoff. And they won't get into town until early on Thursday.

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But the bottom line is this: If Illinois falls short of making the tournament, what does Whitman do? And it's been the question since the end of last season. All summer long. In the preseason. After nonconference. Last month. Last week. Every day.

What will Whitman do if expectations aren't met?

That is the 'riddle me this, Batman' question. And it should be. It's crucial for the trajectory of this program in the short term and the long term. And it directly affects the buy-in of the consumer.

After all, this is a business. And the 'we will win' brand will have its stock shift by the coaching decision. Whitman has built up a ton of good will in just more than a year, especially with the wow factor of the Lovie Smith hire for the football rebuild.

Now, he needs to make a choice on the athletic department's most decorated program in its history.

The hard part is predicting what Whitman will do, as he holds his cards so close to the vest. And he's proven that he's not even willing to show his closest friends his hand.

But we do know a few things. The expectation is that Illinois should make the NCAA tournament, and that was likely the bar for Groce in a crucial year. We also know that to date, Groce does not know his fate. The coaches simply don't know.

On Tuesday, Groce was asked at his press conference about his conversations with Whitman recently. He didn't necessarily duck the big picture, but he stood by the fact that Whitman has been supportive and that he has one focus.

"Josh and I talk weekly -- daily sometimes," Groce said. "His support has been awesome. But I'm gonna be honest with ya, for me -- and part of it is probably because he knows me -- I'm going one day at a time. But he's been fantastic. I couldn't ask for more support."

"My focus is on one day at a time. I think he knows that. He senses that. He's around us enough. He hears what I'm saying to the team, to our staff, and he respects that. And that's how we've left it."

Does his status beyond this season concern him? Surely it does privately. In conversations with his wife. But around his guys and all else, Groce says no.

"I'm not worried about that right now. I'm more worried about Michigan on Thursday," he said. "For me right now, it'd be hypocritical. For me to tell the players that we're climbing the ladder, that we're taking one step at a time -- doing it that way every single day -- and then not do that myself would be hypocritical."

If Groce is unwilling to think about it, fans and media will do it for him. Evans gave his opinion.

"If Illinois makes the NCAA tournament, that's going to buy Groce another year -- especially with this outstanding recruiting class that's coming in," he said. "If Groce falls on his sword and the Illini get bounced by Michigan in that game, it's going to be a tipping-point moment."

Most fans would view a combination of an NIT berth and the preservation of the status quo as a failure. Can't blame them.

But we should know by Sunday night where Groce stands. Possibly sooner. But if Illinois takes an NIT bid and Groce is there to accept it, that should be your answer. If Illinois makes the dance, that is likely your answer.

One interesting aspect is Whitman's level of silence. ADs from Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State have come out and publicly supported their guys amidst job speculation. Whitman, despite some postgame bro hugs, hasn't done any of that.

A source close to potential coaching candidate Monty Williams told IlliniInquirer.com in early February that Williams was itching to get a head coaching gig and that his family would be all-in with a move best for him.

The source talked extensively with Williams in San Antonio late in January, and he said Illinois would probably be intriguing. Since then, that source has been as quiet as Whitman.

Could mean something. Could mean nothing.

What we do know is answers are on the way.


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