Today's game against Minnesota may very well be an NCAA Tournament elimination game.
Illini Week in Review
Saturday's game against Michigan wasn't necessarily a must win for the Illinois soccer team, but it was pretty close. Entering their final regular season contest, Illinois was 8-7-2 overall and 5-4-1 in the Big Ten. The Illini needed at least one win, against Michigan or in the Big Ten tournament, to even be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. Their RPI was on the very edge of "bubble" territory for consideration by the tournament committee, and they only had one win over an RPI top-40 team, at home vs. Ohio State.
That was the backdrop as the Illini fell behind 2-0 early in the second half, when a Michigan cross floated over the head of goalkeeper Steph Panozzo, banged off the post and went across the line for a goal. To the Illini's credit, they didn't let that piece of misfortune deflate them. First, Vanessa DiBernardo curled in a shot from the top of the box to cut the lead in half. Then, Michigan native Niki Read, with dozens of family and friends in attendance, scored the game-tying goal with less than ten minutes left in regulation on an assist from DiBernardo. Finally, early in overtime, freshman Nicole Breece once again contributed with her seemingly boundless energy, drawing a foul in the Michigan box. DiBernardo stepped up and put away the penalty kick to give Illinois an improbable 3-2 win in overtime and give their NCAA tournament hopes a big boost.
For her efforts, DiBernardo was named the Big Ten co-offensive player of the week for the second time in October. The win ensured that the Illini will be NCAA tournament-eligible, and it bumped up their RPI nearly 10 points to #47 as of this morning. That puts the Illini squarely on the bubble, in the mix with teams like Miami (FL), Dayton and Minnesota. More on the Gophers in a moment.
Final Big Ten standings
1. Penn State 10-0-1 31pts
2. Ohio State 8-2-1 25pts
3. Michigan 7-2-2 23pts
4. Minnesota 6-4-1 19pts
4. Illinois 6-4-1 19pts
6. Wisconsin 5-5-1 16pts
7. Nebraska 4-7-0 12pts
7. Iowa 3-5-3 12pts
7. Indiana 4-7-0 12pts
10. Northwestern 3-9-0 9pts
11. Michigan State 2-8-1 7pts
11. Purdue 2-8-1 7pts
As for the tiebreakers in the Big Ten tournament, Minnesota gets the #4 seed over Illinois because of their head-to-head win during the regular season. Indiana was eliminated because of an 0-2 record against Nebraska and Iowa. The Cornhuskers take the 7th seed by virtue of their regular season victory over the Hawkeyes.
What's on Tap
It's Big Ten tournament time, with the event being held in Bloomington, Indiana this year. Before my picks, a quick recap of last week. I went 4-2 in a light slate of games, putting my season total at 30-11-6. Here we go, with my picks in bold.
#4 Minnesota vs. #5 Illinois. Both teams are riding some momentum coming into this one, the Illini have won two straight, while Minnesota has gone 4-1-1 in their last six. It looks like the Illini's health has finally stabilized late in the season, so I'll pick them in what is a tossup game.
#1 Penn State vs #8 Iowa. The Nittany Lions record in the Big Ten tournament isn't quite as stellar as it has been in the regular season. That said, I think they've got enough firepower to eliminate an Iowa team that was reeling before a win in their regular season finale.
#3 Michigan vs. #6 Wisconsin. This should be a defensive struggle. The Wolverines and Badgers both enter tournament play coming off a loss, but I'll take Michigan based on their regular season win in Madison.
#2 Ohio State vs. #7 Nebraska. Congrats to the Cornhuskers for making the tournament this season. They are dangerous enough to crack the scoring column, but also tend to give up goals in bunches. Ohio State looks to be playing the best soccer of anyone in the conference right now.
#1 Penn State vs. #5 Illinois. A rematch of last season's championship game, which the Illini won in overtime. I don't see history repeating this year.
#2 Ohio State vs. #3 Michigan. The Wolverines were 0-2-1 in their last three regular season games entering the tournament. Ohio State hasn't lost since September 27.
#1 Penn State vs. #2 Ohio State. Like last year, I'm going with the hot hand in this tournament, and for the second straight year that happens to be the #2 seed. Should be a whale of a game, assuming there aren't any upsets in the first two rounds.
On the Air
WDWS-AM will broadcast the tournament final if the Illini advance. Otherwise, we're likely done for the season. Thanks for listening, and for reading.