Kelley Wedel and the Illini have a real shot to make the NCAA Tournament.
After dropping two of three games to Wisconsin in a home series the weekend of April 14-15, the Illinois softball team was in 11th place in the conference with a 3-9 record, and under .500 overall at 18-20 overall. NCAA Tournament? The Illini would have to play well down the stretch just to finish at .500 overall.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a second division finish. The Illini started winning. A lot. Series wins against two of the Big Ten's top teams in Purdue and Michigan, winning two of three non-conference games, a series sweep at home against Penn State. All of a sudden, the Illini find themselves above .500 overall at 27-23, and squarely in the middle of the conference with a 10-11 mark.
Still, you might say, how does that record equal an NCAA Tournament berth? Well, it might not. Not yet. But, the Illini find themselves squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble with an RPI of 46, which is the second best among Big Ten teams. Michigan is the only Big Ten team that feels secure about its NCAA Tournament fate right now, with a very solid RPI of 27, plus the inside track on the conference championship and automatic bid. Here are the current Big Ten standings:
Big TenOverallTeamRecordPct.RecordPct.Michigan15-5.75036-15.706Iowa14-7.66725-25.500Purdue13-7.65031-19.620Wisconsin12-8.60033-17.660Nebraska12-8.60031-21.596Indiana11-10.52427-25.519Northwestern11-10.52424-27.471Illinois10-11.47627-23.540Minnesota9-12.42930-20.600Ohio State8-12.40029-22.569Penn State8-13.38117-30.362Michigan State0-20.00011-39.220
So, how does Illinois boast an RPI better than all conference opponents except first-place Michigan? Part of the answer lies in a very solid non-conference schedule that boasts ten games against eight RPI top 50 opponents. Illinois went a respectable 3-7 in those games. Another piece of the puzzle is the Big Ten conference schedule itself. This is the first year that the Big Ten is using three-game weekend series, and with an eight-week conference schedule, there are three conference opponents that each team misses this season. The Illini don't play Indiana, Michigan State or Ohio State this season. Of those three teams, only IU has a winning record in the league at 11-10. More importantly, Michigan State is simply awful this season. They're 0-20 in Big Ten games. The Illini did face the Spartans in a tournament early this season, winning 8-0 in five innings. As nice as it might be to have the potential for three extra wins on the schedule, Illinois might be better off not playing MSU for its strength of schedule. Here's a look at the records of the teams that each of the Big Ten schools doesn't play this year:
TeamDNP'sCombined W-LWinning %IllinoisIU, MSU, OSU19-42.311MinnesotaIU, MSU, OSU19-42.311WisconsinIU, MSU, OSU19-42.311IndianaILL, MIN, WIS31-31.500Michigan StateILL, MIN, WIS31-31.500Ohio StateILL, MIN, WIS31-31.500IowaMICH, PSU, PUR36-25.590NebraskaMICH, PSU, PUR36-25.590NorthwesternMICH, PSU, PUR36-25.590MichiganIA, NEB, NW37-25.597Penn StateIA, NEB, NW37-25.597PurdueIA, NEB, NW37-25.597
You can see which schools benefit from missing some of the more difficult Big Ten opponents this year. So, which Big Ten schools still have a shot at the NCAA Tournament beside Michigan and maybe Illinois? Here is the most recent RPI report released earlier today with each school's RPI rank, overall record, road record, neutral site record, home record and record vs. Non-D1 opponents:
27MichiganBig Ten36-1512-515- 7- 09-30-046IllinoisBig Ten27-234-912- 9- 011-50-049WisconsinBig Ten33-1713-56- 8- 014-40-051PurdueBig Ten31-199-911- 7- 011-30-057NorthwesternBig Ten24-277-1211- 11- 06-40-064MinnesotaBig Ten30-204-1417- 2- 09-40-069NebraskaBig Ten31-217-1211- 9- 013-00-080IowaBig Ten25-256-1110- 8- 09-60-084IndianaBig Ten27-254-1111- 9- 012-50-089Ohio StateBig Ten29-226-612- 8- 011-80-0100Penn StateBig Ten17-302-166- 12- 09-20-0185Michigan StateBig Ten11-393-188- 9- 00-120-0
Despite Iowa being in second place in the conference, they likely won't get in unless they leapfrog Michigan in the last week of the season for the automatic bid. The Hawkeyes and Wolverines don't play this season, so the tiebreakers could get a little complicated. Purdue is the only other team with a mathematical shot to win the title, and they close the season at Michigan. A sweep would allow them to pass the Wolverines in the conference standings, and two wins might be enough to give them the RPI boost they need for an at-large bid. Wisconsin closes at Nebraska, and probably needs to win at least two of three to have a chance at an at-large bid. The Badgers could be problematic for the Illini, as well, because Wisconsin took two of three at Illinois last month, and are ahead of them in the league standings playing the same teams.
What does Illinois need to do to gain a bid? First, they have to at least win their final series at Northwestern, if not gain a sweep. The Wildcats also have faint NCAA Tournament hopes, but would have to sweep Illinois to even be eligible with a .500 overall record. An Illinois sweep this weekend, at least in my calculations, would give the Illini a good chance at gaining an at-large bid with a 30-23 overall record, 13-11 conference mark, and a 12-3 record in their last 15 games.
Second, hope that there are very few upsets in conference tournaments (the Big Ten is one of four conferences with no league tournament). My rough calculations show that as of today, if there are no upsets in conference tourneys, Illinois would be the LAST at-large team to get a bid if the NCAA selection committee were to go strictly by RPI.
I'm not as familiar with the softball selection process as with some other NCAA sports, women's soccer in particular. In soccer, the committee uses the RPI as its primary criteria, but not the only one. Head-to-head results among bubble teams are very important there, which is why Wisconsin could be a thorn in the Illini's side if the softball committee operates in a similar manner.
It's been quite a feat for Illinois just to get back into the NCAA Tournament discussion. If they can somehow complete this comeback, it will be a similar feat to what the baseball team accomplished a season ago in making a late charge to make, then win, the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini face the Wildcats in a doubleheader on Friday, and a single game on Saturday.
Thanks for reading.