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Wisch: Until They Don't, Illini Still Control Tourney Destiny

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) They've seemingly been on life support since the New Year, but like zombies on AMC, this Illinois basketball team isn't dead quite yet.

In fact, these Illini are still fighting.

And as outlandish as it may sound – and as unlikely as it may indeed be – the other fact is that Illinois still has something big to fight for: namely, a chance for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Yeah, seriously.

On Wednesday night, Illinois took the air out of "Nebrasketball," using a stifling defensive effort to deflate the soaring Cornhuskers in a 60-49 win at State Farm Center. The victory was the Illini's second in a row and third in its last five after suffering eight straight losses, improving their record to 16-12 overall, 5-10 in the Big Ten.

The win also guaranteed the Illini at least a .500 record, even if they lose the rest of their regular-season games and fall in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. That means they'll be eligible to play in the NIT, although the Illini would of course be more attractive to the tourney's selection committee if they won a couple more games.

On the other hand, if Illinois were to win a lot more games, it actually still could make itself attractive to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

To close out the regular season, Illinois travels to No. 18 Michigan State on Saturday, followed by a home game against No. 16 Michigan and a road game at No. 20 Iowa. That's quite the gauntlet for any team, and it's highly unlikely that a team as offensively inconsistent as Illinois will be able to run it unscathed.

Heck, it may be highly unlikely that Illinois wins even one of those three games.

Nevertheless, Illinois still does have something to shoot for, which is really all that can be asked this late in this frustrating season. Consider this: If the Illini were to somehow win these last three games, they'd finish with an 8-10 Big Ten record and resolve the issue of having no trademark wins on their resume by posting three of them in a row.

Even with an 8-10 record in conference, it's highly possible that Illinois would still need a victory in the Big Ten Tournament to be taken seriously by the selection committee. But what if Illinois was to instead win two of its last three Big Ten games and then won two games in the Big Ten Tournament.

Would that be enough to be invited to the Big Dance?

I don't know -- but maybe.

Either way, on the strength of an increasingly stout defense and the emergence of budding freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, Illinois has looked like a rejuvenated team of late.

"Sometimes," Illinois coach John Groce said after his team outhustled Nebraska, "when you give that type of effort and you have abnormal focus and concentration and you're playing the right way for the right reasons with the right mind-set, sometimes the basketball gods will let you bank in a three or save a ball."

It would undoubtedly take an abnormal effort for Illinois to go on a wild tear that would result in an NCAA Tournament berth. But, right now, the basketball gods have left the Illini fans with something fun to ponder and the players with something big to play for as we enter March. Because, while the Illini aren't even on the NCAA Tournament bubble, it also hasn't burst for them just yet.

That's an interesting place to be. And, at the very least, it makes Saturday's game against Tom Izzo's Spartans interesting, too.

Follow Dave on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his columns here.

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