Last week was about as up-and-down as you can get for the Illinois soccer team. Friday night's 5-0 win over Michigan State was a match where just about everything went right for the Illini. Five different players scored goals, and the team was also stout on defense. Janet Rayfield also picked up her 100th win at Illinois, which she downplayed after the match.
Sunday's matchup with Michigan was a completely different story. Despite controlling the run of play to the tune of a 21-4 shot advantage, and an 11-1 SOG advantage, the Illini fell 1-0 to the Wolverines on Senior Day. The image of co-captain Jackie Santacaterina in tears on the Illini bench afterward lingers in my mind several days later. You won't find a tougher player than Jackie on the pitch, but the realization that her senior season would come to a close without another trip to the postseason was just too much for her to take. You could also hear the frustration in Rayfield's voice after the loss.
The Illini haven't been "officially" eliminated from postseason consideration, as a win tonight against Northwestern would put them right at the .500 mark, which is the minimum winning percentage needed to qualify. We'll break down their chances a little bit later in this blog entry.
Big Ten Wrapup
Penn State 2 Indiana 1
Illinois 5 Michigan State 0
Michigan 1 Illinois 0
Best Weekend: Penn State. The Nittany Lions haven't lost a Big Ten match since September, and swept the conference's weekly awards. They've also moved back into the top ten in the RPI, which means they're likely to be seeded and host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Worst Weekend: Indiana. The Hoosiers are falling fast after a quick start. If they don't win at Minnesota this weekend, they're likely on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Big Ten Standings
1. Ohio State
6. Michigan State
NCAA Tournament Breakdown
As mentioned earlier, with a win tonight at Northwestern, the Illini would finish the season overall at 8-8-3. That would be enough to at least be considered for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. Here's where the Illini stand right now:
* Last official RPI ranking through games of 11/1: 49.
* Unofficial RPI ranking through games of 11/4: 51.
* Likely cutoff for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth: 44. Though the NCAA Selection Committee doesn't completely follow the RPI rankings, they use it more closely than most other sports. The past two seasons there have only been two deviations each year from a field determined strictly by RPI.
So, the big question is, how much would a win over Northwestern boost the Illini's RPI standing? Probably not too much. Wisconsin picked up a win over the Wildcats on Monday, and their RPI has held steady this week at 32. Why? The Illini's own winning percentage would of course get a boost, which is the first criteria measured by the RPI. But, their opponents' winning percentage (the second component) would drop a bit because of the Wildcats' current .389 winning percentage. The third criteria of opponents' opponents' winning percentage would likely hold pretty steady, as Northwestern's strength of schedule has been very comparable to that of the Illini's previous opponents. Depending on what happens to the teams directly above Illinois, their RPI could rise enough to get consideration for an at-large berth, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
To the Polls
What's On Tap
Last week's predictions went pretty well, as I compiled a 7-2 record. That makes my aggregate record for the season 25-13-11. Still not great, but getting better. Once more into the deep, as my picks for this weekend's matches are in bold.
Illinois at Northwestern. My reasoning for this pick is as follows. Which team has more to play for right now? The Illini still have a shot at postseason play, however remote it might be. They also will be looking for payback after the Wildcats knocked them off in Evanston last season. Northwestern is strictly playing for pride at this point, which I don't think will be quite enough.
Iowa at Purdue. Boilers will pick up a nice win on Senior Day in West Lafayette.
Ohio State at Michigan State. Ohio State allowed three shots for the entire match to both Purdue and Indiana. Without Heyboer, Michigan State will struggle to do much better.
Indiana at Minnesota. The Hoosiers are reeling right now, and the Gophers need this win to ice an NCAA Tournament berth.
Penn State at Michigan. The Nittany Lions will wrap up a share of their 12th straight conference championship.
This week's coverage
I talked with Janet Rayfield earlier this week about bouncing back from last weekend's disappointment. That interview airs tonight on Sportstalk, as I'm filling in for Steve Kelly. Listen for it around 5:20 this evening. You can also find it in podcast form a bit later this evening at IlliniHQ. Thanks for reading.