March gets more interesting for Illinois as they keep winning

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LINCOLN, Neb. – Perhaps three years on the outside looking in at the “Big Dance” have Illini fans a little more willing to dream.

What if Illinois finished out their Big Ten schedule without a loss? What if they went to Washington D.C. and strung together a couple of wins? What if Northwestern’s late season swoon continues, putting John Groce team’s two victories over the Wildcats at the top of the minds of the selection committee?

These are NCAA Tournament dreams that figured to stay just that for an erratic Illini team stumbling through the Big Ten season. But a late run, continued on Sunday night, keeps a little bit of those thoughts flowing as the calendar turns to March.

A strong second half against Nebraska on the road gave Illinois a 73-57 victory in Lincoln. It marks the third-consecutive road victory for the Illini and their fourth win in their last five games. Once 3-8 in the conference, Groce’s team has moved within two games under .500 in the Big Ten and for the moment are out of the bottom third of conference.

Dare to dream about the NCAA Tournament without having to win the one in the Big Ten?

This recent streak hasn’t hurt especially since two of the victories have come against Northwestern, one of the many in the conference vying for an at-large bid in the conference.Right now the Wildcats have an RPI ranking of 49 while the Illini are 56th. Both teams still sit behind six other Big Ten teams in those same rankings with a week left in the regular season.

Even so, with a 17-12 overall record Illinois will need some help even if they beat Michigan State and Rutgers in their final two games then do well in the Big Ten Tournament. But performances like Sunday continue to let the dream continue.

Malcolm Hill led the 19 points and spearheaded a great Illini effort from the outside. His four three-pointers were tied for the best on the team with Tracy Abrams (13 points) and added to a 13-for-26 performance behind the arc for Illinois.

Hill’s three-pointer with 1:18 to go in the first half put Illinois up before the end of the hat and they pulled away after that. A 15-2 run early in the second half helped the Illini to their seven conference victory and leaves this team around the corner from the bubble of the NCAA Tournament.