For weeks, Illinois has seemed like an NCAA tournament lock. Those heady days are officially over.
It's not that the Illini are in deep bubble trouble. Quite the opposite: Joe Lunardi has Bruce Weber's team still safely in the tourney as a No. 10 seed, and the Illini aren't among his last four teams in, meaning -- hypothetically, obviously, since Bracketology is inherently a hypothetical exercise -- that Illinois is, as of right now, safe.
That will serve as small comfort to Illini fans, though. Since their win at Wisconsin on Feb. 9 -- which came immediately after Illinois toppled a Kalin Lucas-less Michigan State team in a rowdy "GameDay" environment on Feb. 6 -- the Illini have lost three of their last four. The first two came to Ohio State and Purdue. Forgivable, right?
Saturday's loss to Minnesota at home is less so. The 62-60 disappointment leaves Bruce Weber's team at 18-11 overall with two difficult assignments -- at Ohio State and against Wisconsin at home -- left. Two losses would put Illinois at 18-13 overall. Combine that with Illinois' mixed nonconference results (including losses to Bradley, Utah and Georgia), and it's not inconceivable that the selection committee would look unfavorably on the Illini.
Is this fair? Maybe. Maybe not. The timing of that schedule certainly doesn't help. But the remedy is simple: Illinois must win. If Demetri McCamey and company get either of those last two games, blog posts like this can become immediately irrelevant, and Illinois' rabid fan base can take a collective deep breath. Until then? Not so much.