Illini in Great Position to Improve NCAA Seeding at B1G Tourney

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The #21 ranked Illinois Fighting Fighting Illini head into the Big Ten Tournament this week playing with house money, of sorts. This season has already seen Illinois lock up their: first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013, most conference wins since 2005 and highest seed in the Big Ten Tournament since 2009.

They can play calm and loose in the conference tournament this weekend, and hopefully that relaxed attitude will help them get some more wins in Indianapolis, and with that obtain a higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Let’s take a look at what’s ahead for them this week, and how that could shape what’s ahead in the following week and potentially beyond.

You’re probably asking yourself, should you pick the Illini in your march madness bracket? To answer that, let’s take a look at recent trends, overall program history, what match-ups they’ll see this week and how it could all be predictive of what’s to come in the big dance.

Having earned a double bye in the conference tournament, they’re off until Friday. Fun fact: from the year the tournament was conceived (1998) until 2011, Illinois either pre-qualified for or advanced to the quarterfinal round, where they’ll be slotted as the #4 seed. The Illini have three potential opponents, all of which are a lower seed, so their chances of getting to semifinal Saturday are very good. History is on their side, as they’re 12-5 all time in the Big Ten tourney quarters.

In the semifinal round, Illinois is 6-6 all time, so there is a decent chance they could be playing for the conference tournament title on Sunday. Especially considering they won at Wisconsin, in this season’s only previous meeting, and the Badgers are the most likely semifinal opponent for Illinois.

“The first few days will be about us, we’ve got to clean some things up,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said on the conference tournament coaches call yesterday.

“We got to tweak a couple things that I want to work on, but there won’t be a focus on a singular team until we know who we’re playing.”

Most march madness bracket projections have Illinois as a #6 or #7 seed right now, playing their first game in either St. Louis of Greensboro. Obviously, the first destination mentioned is preferred, as it would be an extremely advantageous location for the program and their base. Maybe Illinois can use this week to work their way up to the #5 or #4 line and earn a trip to the Gateway City as a reward. SBD has a bracket challenge going live next week in case you are looking for different options where you can pick the Illini.

Underwood, now in his third year, got off to a very slow start in Champaign, but he has truly turned things around now. The overall trajectory in Champaign is certainly upward.

brad underwood

“I think the future’s bright,” said Underwood on the coaches call.

“We had six or seven sellouts here at the end and State Farm Center is as loud as any arena I’ve ever been a part of.”

“Everything is in front of us, we’ve gone through some of the growing pains that you have to do in terms of restructuring and retooling a program. We’ve made some strides this year, and we’re not where we want to be yet but we’re getting darn close.”

Illinois has reached five Final Fours, with an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 40-31. This will be their 31st all time appearance. However, their last five have seen them unable to survive the tourney’s first weekend.

Overall, Illinois has been eliminated in the second round seven of the last 13 tournament appearances. So in order to go on a deep run, like they did in 2005 and 2001, they’ll to pull off a couple upsets.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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