CHAMPAIGN — Don’t try to convince Matt Bollant that his Illinois women’s basketball team is on the bubble.
Although the Illini have lost three of their last four games to fall to 16-12, the first-year UI coach is unshaken in his conviction that Illinois already has made a strong enough case to merit an NCAA tournament bid.
“I feel like we’ve done enough right now,” Bollant said this week while preparing his sixth-seeded team for the Big Ten tournament. “I think our resume is good enough.”
Others aren’t ready to go quite that far.
“Illinois has put itself in good position for an at-large berth ... but I don’t think it is an at-large lock entering the conference tournament,” espnW reporter Graham Hays said.
Hays’ compatriot at the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports, Charlie Creme, also thinks the Illini still have work to do to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. The ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist does not include Illinois in his current field of 64, although the Illini are on the cusp. Creme lists Illinois among the “first four out” in his bracket.
Conversely, RealTimeRPI.com currently projects Illinois as a No. 13 seed in the tournament.
Confusing? Welcome to pre-March Madness, where speculation runs rampant and only the members of the tournament selection committee know for sure where the hopefuls stand in the run-up to the unveiling of the bracket March 18.
As the Illini open Big Ten tournament play Thursday against Wisconsin, here’s a closer look at where Bollant’s team stands in several key areas that the committee will consider in its deliberations.
It stands for Rating Percentage Index, and the not-so-simple definition is this:
The RPI ranks teams based on their winning percentage, their opponents’ winning percentage, and (stick with us!) the winning percentage of the opponents of their opponents. The latter two categories provide the basic data to determine a team’s strength of schedule, which accounts for 75 percent of its RPI.
Beginning in January, the NCAA each Monday makes public its updated RPI. The Illini’s latest RPI ranking is No. 63.
That might make Illini fans nervous, but it’s not anywhere close to a deal-breaker. The RPI is just one of many implements in the committee’s toolbox. Two years ago, when Bollant attended a mock selection session conducted by the NCAA for educational purposes, he learned to keep the RPI in perspective.
“What they said is, this is not our primary focus,” Bollant said. “This is one of the tools that we use. We use everything. Every bit of information that we can get our hands on, we look at.”
This is where Illini fans might have reason to be apprehensive. While the Big Ten is conducting its tournament this week, a host of others across the country are doing the same to determine their league’s automatic NCAA qualifier.
“That is a big deal,” Bollant said.
Why? Because there are a handful of midmajor conferences with a member that seemingly is a lock to make the NCAA field. That group includes Dayton, Delaware and Wisconsin-Green Bay — all nationally ranked. Others — like Creighton, Gonzaga and San Diego State — all rank in the RPI top 39.
Should any of those teams unexpectedly stumble, their conference’s automatic bid would go to another member which otherwise might not have gotten into the NCAA tournament. Because the NCAA still will invite the likes of Dayton, those conferences would receive two bids, leaving fewer at-large spots for candidates from the major conferences.
“You need at least a majority of those (favored) teams to win their tournaments,” Bollant said. “I don’t know that we need all of them to win their tournaments, but we can’t have half of them get knocked off ... or (their conference is) taking two bids instead of one. And that hurts teams like us.”
The possibility of this happening, in Hays’ opinion, raises the stakes for Illinois at the Big Ten tournament. He thinks a one-and-done at the Sears Centre Arena in suburban Chicago would endanger the Illini’s NCAA hopes.
“Even if the Illini are in (the NCAA field) at the moment — which isn’t a given with an RPI in the 60s — it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they aren’t among the final few at-large teams,” Hays said. “So if there are a rash of upsets elsewhere ... the bubble gets that much more perilous regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament.
“It’s too easy to paint conference tournament games as decisive, but it’s fair to say Illinois has reason to worry if it loses to Wisconsin.”
The committee will give weight to how a team is performing down the stretch. How has it fared in its last 10 games? How many of those wins were on the road? How many were against quality opponents?
In that regard, the Illini are in decent shape even with their 1-3 finish to the regular season. Illinois is 6-4 in its last 10, including two road wins and a home victory against an Iowa team currently 37th in the RPI.
“That’s (a) better (finish) than a lot of teams,” Bollant said.
Among them are two Big Ten rivals with far higher RPIs than the Illini. Michigan (No. 31) and Iowa each are 4-6 in their last 10.
The Illini have two true jewels on their resume: a home win against Georgia (No. 20 in the RPI) and a road victory against Nebraska (No. 15). The defeat of Iowa certainly is notable, too.
Bollant points to one of the many RPI simulations — the Sagarin computer ratings — to bolster his contention that Illinois has a strong record of quality wins. His Illini, who are No. 44 in the Sagarin, own six victories against five teams in Sagarin’s top 50.
“With the quality wins we have, I feel like we should get in,” Bollant said.
When the committee examines Illinois’ Big Ten record, how will members evaluate it? Although the Illini went 9-7 in the conference to tie for fifth place, eight of those victories came against teams that finished in the bottom half of the league. Sixth-seeded Illinois went 1-5 against teams seeded above it in the league tournament.
How will that play out with the committee, particularly if there’s a real squeeze for the final few at-large invitations?
The good news for Illinois is that the Big Ten is a power conference that has flexed its muscles this season. RealTimeRPI.com ranks the Big Ten No. 2 among all leagues. In that context, 9-7 carries some weight.
The eye test
The committee can crunch tons of numbers and look at reams of RPI printouts. Ultimately, they’ll need to make decisions, and those can ultimately hinge on what they see of teams with their own two eyes.
For example, Bollant points to the value of Illinois’ performance on the BTN last Sunday at Purdue. Given BTN’s national reach, it was an opportunity for committee members to put an up-to-date face on the Illini. Yes, Illinois lost 76-65, but Bollant is confident his team passed the eye test.
“That was two of the top 40 teams in the country playing ... at a really high level,” he said. “That was really fast and great basketball. That looked like an NCAA tournament game.
“To me, you go watch the other teams competing for those (at-large) spots, that game was at a higher level.”