Illinois' NCAA tourney bubble watch

You know when you were a kid and you blew a bubble within a bubble within a bubble? Well, that’s where Illinois’ season is right now.

With Tuesday’s 73-57 loss to Ohio State, the Illini’s NCAA Tournament bubble is at its capacity. There’s still time to inhale before it bursts, but that time is quickly dwindling.

A lot of numbers fly around this time of season. There are discussions about wins, losses, good wins, bad losses, strength of schedule, records against top-50 teams, RPI and so many more digits with decimal points.

Anyway, forget all those numbers.

There’s an easy way of thinking of Illinois’ season from here on out. If the Illini beat Wisconsin on Sunday, there’s a good chance they’re in the NCAA Tournament. If they lose, imagine that massive bubble bursting, and their season depending only on an unlikely Big Ten Tournament championship.

What makes Tuesday’s loss so frustrating for Illinois fans was it was no different than most for their team this season.

At times, Illinois showed flashes of brilliance. Demetri McCamey looked invincible in spurts, throwing pinpoint one-hand passes, knocking down NBA-range 3-pointers. Freshman Brandon Paul displayed with his athleticism and scoring ability why he found a way into Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects and has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade. Mike Davis was sometimes aggressive on the boards and appeared to be that double-double guarantee he has been in the past.

Then, there was Dr. Jekyll wearing his orange and blue. McCamey went cold, and the dominoes began falling. Paul returned to being a frustrating freshman. Everyone’s shots began clanking. Mike Tisdale got into foul trouble. Illinois’ defense couldn’t seem to locate shooter Jon Diebler, and he burned it time after time for doing so. Ultimately, Evan Turner got into his groove and he led Ohio State in rebounds and assists despite his slow start.

It’s after games like this that it’s hard not to begin thinking about next season for Illinois. Even if it does slip into the NCAA tournament, what its potential? First round? Second? This team isn’t likely to transform itself just because it gets into the dance.

Next season, the Illini bring back nearly everyone from this roster -- Demetri McCamey may test the NBA draft waters, but his stock probably won’t be high enough to enter. They’ll also welcome three highly touted recruits, including ESPNChicago.com Boys Basketball Player of the Year Jereme Richmond, while adding guard depth with Joseph Bertrand and another likely recruit.

As for their potential? Surely, no bubbles.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.