Greatest bang-bang day in Illinois hoops history: Northwestern punches NCAA ticket, Illini save Groce's job.

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All things considered, Wednesday might be the greatest multi-game day in college-basketball history in the state of Illinois.

Northwestern’s full-court buzzer beater over Michigan deserved all the attention it received. To complete an end-to-end pass to pretty much lock up the first NCAA tournament bid in school history?

It doesn’t get any better than that.

And yet, Illinois’ win over Michigan State was just as dramatic in its own way. It was a genuine tear-jerker.

When coach John Groce was asked by BTN analyst Jon Crispin what his six seniors have meant, he got so choked up that he could barely utter four words: ``A lot. . . a lot.’’[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Asked what this Senior Night meant to him, star senior Malcolm Hill had tears streaming down his face as he uttered the same two words: ``A lot.’’

Northwestern’s rise is heady stuff. CBS Sports and Jim Nantz will be in Evanston Sunday for the final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, which will undergo a major renovation next season while the Wildcats will play at DePaul’s longtime home, Allstate Arena.

And of course, Northwestern will be a major focal point on Selection Sunday—and when the Wildcats play their (ever!) NCAA tournament game.

Get ready for a lot of talk about Collins’ Joe-Maddon-like accomplishment, which is considerable. Between the Cubs’ World Series win and Northwestern finally earning a Big Dance invitation, two of the lengthiest droughts in sports are becoming history.

Get ready for references to Chris’ mentors, Mike Krzyzewski and proud papa Doug Collins. The clips of Doug's anguished looks are pure. . . anguish.

But what Illinois has done also is pretty serious drama. By winning five of their last six, including four straight, the Illini, who were dead in the water at 3-8 in Big Ten play, haven’t merely give themselves an outside at NCAA tournament redemption.

They have almost certainly saved John Groce’s job.

If Illinois wins at Rutgers on Saturday?, it will finish 9-9 in the conference and be in the discussion for the Big Ten’s eighth NCAA seed. Another win in its conference tournament opener would give Illinois a pretty strong resume.

That would help Hill—who’s gaining a reputation as one of the most under-rated players in the nation—avoid the dubious distinction of being in the first four-year class at Illinois that failed to play in the NCAA tournament since it was a Field of 32.

Count me among those who believed Groce had two chances of saving his job. For the longest time, I was leaning toward None. But Slim is gaining weight. Tons of weight, at this point.

That’s fine.

I still wonder if Groce is the long-term answer to deliver on Illini Nation’s hopes for a return to glory.

Then again, I have a different perspective. When I was on the Illini beat for two decades, Illinois won five Big Ten championships and was knocking on the door for several more. The question was seldom whether Illinois would earn an NCAA bid. It was all about where it would be seeded, and it rarely slipped below a No. 5 seed.

Times have changed.

Maybe Illinois is accepting that it isn’t going to be as dominant in the modern Big Ten. Maybe a coach who is 38-52 in five years of conference play is the new normal.

Whatever the future holds, Wednesday was a wonderful thing for Groce and his under-the-gun players.

Who doesn’t root for sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams, who has missed two seasons due to injury?

Who doesn’t root for Hill, the only player in the six major conferences to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists and steals this season?

We can question how a team that’s playing so well now dug itself such a big hole. But there’s no question that the Illini are doing themselves proud at this point.

With Illinois State in the hunt to join the Illini and the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament, the Land of Lincoln is on the comeback trail.

The biggest college-basketball night in Illinois made that point.

@ @@ Wisconsin has lost its last three games by a combined 22 points. In those games, key players Nigel Hayes (9-23) & Ethan Happ (1-10) have missed 23 free throws (10-33).

@ @@ The Badgers’ loss to Iowa gives Purdue the regular-season title outright, and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

With one game to play, things can change a bit. But going into the weekend, Minnesota, Maryland and Wisconsin are tracking for the other three double-byes.

Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska and Rutgers shape up as the teams that will play in the opening doubleheader on Wednesday.[/membership]

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