The Illini are the only in-state program to make the NCAA Tournament since 2007, and they've only done it three times. So yeah, Illinois is in a heck of a rut. They've missed three straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1980. Despite their worst run in decades, the Illini still are the best program in state. They missed the tournament by just a game in 2010, 2014 and 2015. The Illini have issues but are still the most talented program in the state. Next season, they have a pretty deep roster with enough talent to make a leap to the top half of the Big Ten -- if healthy, of course. But it's time for John Groce's program to start a new streak of NCAA appearances.
2. Illinois State
The Redbirds actually had a higher RPI than any in-state team this past year (114 -- one spot higher than Northwestern). Dan Muller, who played on the last ISU tournament team (1998), has proven to be the right man for the job. The Redbirds have won at least 18 games in each of their four seasons under Muller and are 40-32 during Missouri Valley Conference play during that time. The Redbirds made the MVC Tournament Championship Game in 2015 (one win away from clinching a tournament appearance) and finished tied for second in the conference in 2016. If talented big man Reggie Lynch hadn't transferred to Minnesota, ISU might have made an even better run at Wichita. ISU has an identity: long, athletic and tough. The Redbirds lose All-MVC Second-Team selection DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell but return most of its other contributors, including rising senior point guard Paris Lee (who could start for the team above) and athletic wings MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins. Wichita State will remain the conference favorite, but without Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the Shockers are more vulnerable than they have been in a while and ISU is their biggest challenger. The trouble is that ISU likely will have to win the MVC Tournament to earn a bid. Though Muller has shown that he isn't afraid to schedule tough, playing in recent nonconference seasons Louisville, Kentucky, Maryland, Northwestern, DePaul, VCU, Murray State, St. Joseph's, UAB, Seton Hall and Old Dominion.
The Wildcats (20-12) were the highest ranked in-state team in the KenPom (75), but they went just 2-11 against Top-100 teams -- a big reason they did not receive an NIT bid despite its first 20-win season in program history. Northwestern was really hurt by injuries this season to Vic Law and Alex Olah, and the Cats lose Olah and Tre Demps to graduation. Rising junior point guard Bryant McIntosh gives the Cats a chance to hang around the bubble, but will Law and rising sophomores Derek Pardon and Aaron Falzon give him the support previous Northwestern stars -- like Evan Eschmeyer and John Shurna -- sorely lacked? Incoming freshmen Rapolas Ivanauskas and Barret Benson up coach Chris Collins' talent level, but it seems like the Cats will have a better chance to crash the Dance in 2018 than 2017. But Collins seems to have Northwestern closer than ever to actually putting on some dancing shoes.
4. Southern Illinois
Some thought Barry Hinson was simply brought in to clean up and stabilize the mess left by Chris Lowery -- who made three NCAA Tournaments in his first three years and won three tournament games, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007, but went 24-48 in the MVC his last four seasons -- for the next guy. But Hinson has led SIU to two .500 or better finishes in the MVC in the last three seasons. This season, he led the Salukis to their first 20-win season since 2007. Still, is SIU ready for a leap? They lose their top player, Anthony Beane Jr., but return seven of their top eight scorers in a MVC that seems a bit more wide open. One thing's for sure, Hinson has stabilized the Salukis.
5. Northern Illinois
The Huskies have been down for most of the last decade, but former Tom Izzo assistant Mark Montgomery has slowly rebuilt the program from the mess Ricardo Patton left to respectability. The Huskies -- who play in one of the more underrated arenas in the state -- went 21-12 this season, their first 20-win season since 1996-- the last season NIU made the NCAA Tournament. Their 9-9 MAC finish was their first .500 or better conference slate in a decade (2006). The MAC is one of the weakest and wide-open leagues in the country, and the Huskies lose only one important senior (Trevon Baker). NIU returns three double-digit scorers next season. One great weekend -- at Ohio, John Groce had two great weekends in the MAC Tournament that ultimately led to him landing the Illinois gig -- could land the gradually-improving Huskies back in the Dance.
Surprised? The Ramblers -- the only in-state team to win an NCAA Tournament (1963) -- haven't gone dancing since 1985 and have been to just one postseason since then (2014 CBI). But Porter Moser has the Ramblers relatively relevant again following a transition from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley. Moser led the Ramblers to the 2014 CBI Championship and the Ramblers are a respectable 15-21 in the Valley the last two seasons. So they are showing a competitiveness they haven't in a long time but they do lose three key seniors. Still, if Moser can land a few more in-state prospects -- LeRoy's Matt Chastain would be a huge get -- Moser might take a leap and surprise some people in the Valley.
7. Eastern Illinois
The Panthers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2001 but they've at least been competitive in the Ohio Valley, finishing third in the OVC West division in all four seasons under head coach Jay Spoonhour, winning nine conference games in each of their past two seasons. The Panthers won seven of their last 10 regular-season games and return most of their roster, but they lose top scorer Trae Anderson. Something outside EIU's control, state budget issues threaten the Panthers' resources.
Possibly the most disappointing drought in the state belongs to DePaul, given their history. The Blue Demons haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and after going through two other coaches (Jerry Wainwright and Oliver Purnell), they have given the keys back to the last man to lead them to the tournament, Dave Leitao. But DePaul went 9-22 last season and 3-15 in the American Athletic Conference. Their facilities, compared to the rest of the Big East, make this an uphill battle for Laitao, who must try to get a few Chicago prospects to stay home and make DePaul cool again. The conference provides DePaul with the chance to earn some big wins but also makes it tough for DePaul to win the conference tournament.
This might be a bit low for the Braves. I loved the hire of former UW-Green Bay coach Brian Wardle, but his predecessor, Geno Ford, left Bradley in such a bad place that it's going to take Wardle a while to dig out of it. Wardle added about 10 players to his roster last spring -- yes, during the spring -- so it's no surprise the Braves (5-27) took it on the chin last season. The Braves have only made the tournament twice since Hersey Hawkins left in 1988 -- 1996 and the 2006 Sweet Sixteen appearance led by lottery pick Patrick O'Bryant. It's a tough road ahead, so Wardle will need patience.
10. Western Illinois
The Leathernecks would've ranked a lot higher if Jim Molinari hadn't left in 2014 to join Tim Miles' Nebraska staff. He led the Leathernecks to a Summit League title in 2013 and one win away from the NCAA Tournament. His replacement, Billy Wright, is 18-37 overall and 6-26 in the Summit.
Former Illini assistant Jimmy Collins led the Flames to three NCAA Tournaments in seven seasons from 1998 to 2004. But the Flames have won just 56 total games in the last seven seasons -- spanning three coaches, one year of Collins, all five of Howard Moore and the first season of Steve McClain -- including just 23 conference wins. McClain, a former Tom Crean assistant, has a heck of a task.
12. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
SIU-E just joined Division I in 2008-09 and the Ohio Valley Conference in 2010-11. Coach Lennox Forrester led the Division I transition and did an admirable job, but the Cougars tabbed California assistant Jon Harris to take them to the next level. But the Cougars went 6-22 overall in his first season and 3-13 in the OVC.
13. Chicago State
I feel for head coach Tracy Dildy. He has fewer resources than any coach in the country. His team plays in the WAC -- forcing ridiculous travel -- and CSU must schedule several big programs just to earn a paycheck (though Illinois needed a buzzer-beater to beat the Cougars this season). The state budget battle has put the university in trouble of closure. Chicago State is a last resort for most recruits, and Dildy doesn't have the budget to recruit beyond a drivable distance. The Cougars went 4-28 overall, 0-14 Big West last season -- and only one win (Nebraska-Omaha) came against a Division-I program.