Illinois needs five more wins for comfort on Selection Sunday, 4 more to ride the bubble.

 

The Illinois basketball team entered the danger zone Saturday.

With only four home games remaining and five wins needed to get to a 10-8 record in the Big Ten that would essentially assure an NCAA Tournament bid, the numbers are beginning to work against the Illini.

Illinois (15-8 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten) plays at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6) Thursday (8 p.m., BTN).

Q: How many wins will it take to get to the NCAA's?

A: A 10-8 record in the Big Ten would be more than enough for an NCAA bid. A 9-9 record puts the Illini on the bubble, even though the Big Ten's reputation this season would likely be enough for the Illini to slide into the expanded 68-team field.

If it takes five more wins to comfortably sit through the Selection Sunday show, where will they come? Assuredly, the Illini must sweep the final four home games, including the date against No. 11 Purdue Sunday (noon, CBS).

That would still leave the Illini needing one more win on the road, where Illinois has already lost six of the last seven games away from home. Illinois heads into dates at Purdue and top-ranked Ohio State as heavy underdogs.

The best chance for a win comes at Michigan State, where the Spartans became the nation's most underwhelming team. Ranked No. 2 to start the season, Michigan State lost 72-52 at Iowa Wednesday and 82-56 at No. 19 Wisconsin Sunday. Looks like they're ready to call it a year.

If so, perhaps the Illini can take advantage to save their own season.

Q: How good is Illinois' defense?

A: It seems the numbers are a mirage. Illinois ranks second among Big Ten teams in field-goal percentage defense, but the Illini haven't locked down key players while watching the season spiral out of control.

Indiana guard Jordan Hulls drilled a 3-pointer to start the game against Illinois -- a relatively wide open shot while the Illini defense went under the screen -- and finished with 18 points in the 52-49 win there. Hulls isn't the kind of player who "creates his own shot.''

In the 71-70 loss at Northwestern Saturday, Wildcats guard Juice Thompson hit three 3-pointers to break open a tie game late in the second half while scoring a game-high 22 points. Not a good performance from a team that entered the season with so much talk about better defense.

Q: Will there be a youth movement in the closing weeks?

A: Coach Bruce Weber may get more involved with freshman center Meyers Leonard and perhaps put the ball more in the hands of sophomore Brandon Paul, who needs experience as a point guard. But with the Illini still well within mathematical limits to earn an NCAA bid, don't expect Weber to blow it up and start over in the final month.