Stop me if you've heard this before. We all know that Bruce Weber is enduring a tough season, and that the Fighting Illini will finish the 2007-08 season with their worst record since the 1998-99 season when Lon Kruger was still head coach. Yes, these are trying times indeed for the Illini faithful, and this poses a few questions as we head toward the month of March and postseason play.
Question #1: Does this Illini team have what it takes to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament and somehow make the NCAA Tournament? Not likely at this point. The Illini have been in most every game that they have played lately, and led all of them at one point. But, free throw shooting continues to plague this team, and games have been lost at the free throw line constantly (see Indiana, Penn State to name a couple). When a team shoots 50% or less from the line in a close game, they do not deserve to win the game, in my opinion. In the double overtime loss to Indiana a couple of weeks back, Shaun Pruitt had not1, not2, but 3 chances to win the game by making a single free throw, and couldn't convert any time. Mind you, these are shots that are not being contested, and from a stationary position. Furthermore, asking this team to win 4 games in 4 days is a very tall order. Normally your seniors are supposed to be your leaders on the court, but lately keeping them on the court has been a monumental task. Brian Randle likes to get into foul trouble, and we all know the issues that Pruitt faced with his attitude that led to him being suspended by Weber last month. Yes, it is possible that the Illini could get on a hot streak and somehow win the tournament, but I wouldn't hedge any bets on it happening.
Question #2: That being said, does this Illini team stand any chance of righting the ship and getting enough wins for inclusion to the NIT? At 11-15 currently, the Illini would need to pretty much win out and at least win 2 games in the Big Ten Tournament for that to be a reality. The Illini have not participated in the NIT since Lou Henson's last year, which was 1996. Weber has stated that it would be a goal to strive for, given the train wreck of a season that they have had. Big Ten teams have fared very well in the NIT as of late, with Michigan winning the tournament a couple of times. Sure, it doesn't have the lustre that the NCAA Tournament has, but it would give the young players on the team some form of postseason experience. My personal opinion on this is that it is more possible than winning the Big Ten Tournament.
Question #3: With a new tournament beginning this season, can the Illini set their sights on that? The College Basketball Invitational, a new postseason venture set forth by the Gazelle Group, gives teams that are not selected for either the NCAA or NIT tournaments a chance to play some extra basketball. Since the NIT pared down their field from 40 to 32 a year ago when the NCAA took over the tourney, it essentially cut 8 teams out of the loop for selection. This new tournament gives teams like the Illini a chance to play for something. At this point, with the season pretty much lost, it makes much sense to start playing the younger players, guys who are going to be around next year. Weber did this at Minnesota and the Illini stormed the Gophers 84-60.
Brian Carlwell has left the basketball program, stemming from the accident a year ago involving Jamar Smith. Carlwell, who only played in 3 games this season, has also been battling a knee injury. He will finish out the semester at Illinois, then seek a transfer to another state school.
So, what do you think about the Illini's prospects for the postseason? Do you think they have what it takes to make a run through the Big Ten Tournament? Or, will they be watching from their apartments? As always, I welcome your comments.