1. Is this a bubble elimination game? Sort of. If Minnesota loses, their chances are done. I think even if they were to win out and make the Big Ten Final and lose there, they still wouldn't get in. In that case, it's an elimination game for the Gophers. As for the Illini, they're a bit tougher to read. Although losing this game wouldn't crush their chances, it would make things more difficult for them, because their last two games are at Ohio State and then home against the Badgers. If they win even one more game it gets them to 11 Big Ten wins, and with non-conference victories over Vanderbilt and Clemson it's hard to imagine them not getting in at that point. The RPI is 64 which is a bit iffy, so they'd probably be better off getting two wins. So no, it's not an elimination game for Illinois, but it would make things a lot scarier for them if they lose.
2. Is Illinois good? Well, I picked them 7th in the conference before the season started, so they're obviously better than I thought they'd be, but it's hard to get a real read on this team. The previously mentioned wins over Vanderbilt and Clemson are both impressive, especially since the win over Clemson was on the road, but they also lost non-conference games to a couple of terrible teams in Utah (RPI 142) and Bradley (105). In conference play they've mostly beat up on the bad teams, with six of their Big Ten wins coming in season sweeps of Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State, but they also have a couple of really nice wins, one over Michigan State and a very impressive win in the Kohl Center over Sconnie. I think what it really boils down to is that they are an above average team, and the very definition of a bubble team. A couple of breaks either way (they won by three or less against Clemson, Penn State and Indiana, and lost by three or less against Gonzaga, Utah, and Georgia) and they could be firmly IN or OUT at this point.
3. What's going on with McCamey? One of the biggest concerns I had about the Illini this year was point guard play. Chester Frazier was no brilliant scorer or anything, but he could run the point, and with his graduation Illinois didn't really have a point guard, and I didn't think McCamey could become one. He seems to have made the adjustment (mostly) however, and even tossed in a 16-assist game against Purdue last week, his third game with 9+ assists in the team's last five, and he now ranks second in the country in assists per game. Second in the country. Think about that one. However he's still not brilliant with the ball, as his 3.5 turnovers per game are a problem and he's currently riding a four game streak of 5+ turnovers. I tend to think the turnovers right now have a lot to do with him trying to create, and kind of go along with assists and playmaking (Evan Turner is the worst in the Big Ten at 3.8 per game), so the real key is going to be containing the assists and his ability to create open shots for his teammates while capitalizing on the turnovers, because they will come.
4. Has Ralph arrived? I certainly like to think so. I couldn't have been more proud on Wednesday, up until the part where they lost. Ralphie went up against the best center in the Big Ten in Johnson, and not only held his own he dominated the matchup. Johnson ended up with good numbers, but after a hot start he was mostly invisible while Ralph carried the Gopher offense on his back. I'm very interesting in seeing how he handles Tisdale on Saturday. Ralph has a size and strength advantage, but at this stage of his development he's still a finesse player which plays in to the taller Tisdale's hands. Hopefully we see another step in his path towards Big Ten POY and he brutalizes him down low.
5. Can the Gophers actually win in Champaign? They never do, do they? The Gophers have been playing very well lately and if that keeps up they have a solid chance, but the Illini are no easy pushover, and somebody is going to have to keep Mike Davis off the boards. I think I can make three solid predictions for the game:
1) At some point, the Gophers will have a double-digit lead
2) At some point with ten minutes left in the game or less, the Gophers will have a lead.
3) When the final gun sounds, Gopher fans are left feeling disappointed once again by this team
Illinois 63, Minnesota 60
As far as the bubble goes, last night Tulsa whiffed on their big chance to get back in consideration by losing at Duke. Nobody expected them to win, but it was still their last chance, any way you look at it (barring a win in the C-USA tournament which is certainly possible) and you can now officially cross of Louisiana Tech after their loss to Boise. Cal and Arizona State both won, increasing the chances of two Pac-10 teams making the dance, and Utah State and St. Mary's both won absolute must-have games.
THIS WEEKEND'S BUBBLE GAMES OF NOTE:
Princeton @ Cornell - If Cornell wins, they all but lock up the Ivy. If they lose they are tied with Princeton at the top.
Kansas @ Oklahoma State - An OSU win might be enough to put them in.
Cincinnati @ West Virginia - The Bearcats have little margin for error, and a marquee win like this would be huge.
Illinois State @ Northern Iowa - UNI can't afford another loss to a sub-par team.
Rice @ UTEP - Neither can the Miners.
Tulane @ UAB - Same deal for the Blazers.
Ole Miss @ Alabama - Can the Rebels make a late season push?
Arizona State @ Cal - I'm calling the winner of this one IN.
UNLV @ Air Force - Rebels starting to look a bit shaky, if they drop this one they might be out.
Maryland @ Virginia Tech - The Hokies must win here.
VCU @ Old Dominion - Tough game for ODU, but they can't lose another one.
Charlotte @ George Washington - Charlotte is another team that can't lose a game if they want a bid.
Penn @ Cornell - Same deal here, but this takes on even more importance if the Big Red are dropped by Princeton Friday night.
UMass @ Dayton - Dayton is on very thin ice due to a poor A-10 performance, they're another team that's probably one loss away from being dropped from consideration altogether.
Loyola-Marymount @ St. Mary's - LMU beat Gonzaga earlier this month, could they knock St. Mary's into the NIT? (Answer = no).
Richmond @ Xavier. Both these teams are almost certainly in, but it should be a pretty great game, and the winner moves to definite lock status.
Marquette @ Seton Hall - Bubble elimination game? Certainly for the Pirates.
Louisville @ UCONN - Both teams will probably make it, but the winner here takes a step up.
Clemson @ Florida State - Similar to the game above, but both these teams are a bit shakier than the two above.
Busy weekend. Go Gophers.