Illini #1 Seed in NIT, Shunned by NCAA

The Fighting Illini basketball team, up and down all season, suffered the ignominity of being excluded from the NCAA Tournament field. Bad losses, a low RPI and a season ending losing streak all conspired to seal their fate. They now try to regroup with a first round game at Stony Brook College in New York as part of the NIT Tournament.

Five Big 10 teams made the NCAA field. Ohio State is a 2 seed, Purdue and Wisconsin are 4 seeds, and Michigan State is a 5 seed. Due to their run to the championship game of the Big 10 Tournament, Minnesota became the fifth and final Big 10 selection, earning an 11 seed.

The bad news is that Illinois, a bubble team most of the year, was left out of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. The good news is the Illini will continue their season as a #1 seed in the NIT Tournament.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber discussed the bad news first.

"Obviously, it's an understatement to say it's a tough day. We don't have anyone to blame but ourselves. It starts with me, getting the guys to be ready early in the season. We let some games slip by that ended up costing us.

"I said from the beginning we'd go through a growing up process. I was worried about some things. When it comes down to it, the Vegas games were two below-100 games that maybe cost us.

"And then it probably comes down to the Minnesota game at home. We had a chance to put a bigger gap between us and Minnesota (but didn't).

"We played well enough this weekend to be among the top 65 teams in the country. I think we're one of the top 40 teams in the country. I thought we could beat some people if we played at the level we did this weekend. But we don't get that opportunity in the NCAA."

Many Illini players thought their win at Michigan sealed an NCAA bid because it gave them a winning Big 10 record. Weber says the premature hype hurt the team.

"One of our problems after the Michigan game was we listened too much to the media when everybody was saying we were in. And then the Coach's rhetoric was blanked out and we didn't come ready to play against Minnesota. And then I think we were hit by a little shock.

"To our kids' credit we recovered. I couldn't be more proud how they played (this weekend). We played two teams that are high seeds. We beat one and really controlled the whole game until they hit some crazy threes.

"And we are ahead most of the time and then lose in double overtime to a team Minnesota loses to by 30. You've got to wonder about that. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But it is what it is."

Picking the 65 teams is a tremendously complex process. Weber may not understand all the criteria that put Illinois on the wrong side of the bubble, but he accepts the results.

"You can analyze and cross check, look at a lot of people on why they got in or why they didn't. The (NCAA) committee makes the decision, and it's a very difficult decision. Sometimes it doesn't always make sense, but I understand it's a very difficult process.

Now for the better news. The Illini season is not at an end. They have a chance to prove their worth by performing well in the NIT Tournament. Neglected by the NCAA, the Illini are one of four #1 seeds in the NIT along with Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and Arizona State.

Illini players were tremendously disappointed to miss the NCAA's. It will be difficult to rekindle their optimism and desire to play well. Bill Cole doesn't yet know which way the pendulum will swing.

"I don't know. We'll see. I know the guys were extremely disappointed in the locker room. It'll be tough to get out of the mindset of disappointment and get into the preparation mindset it takes to win a tournament.

"For me it was one of the toughest things that's ever happened basketball-wise. It's a bad situation to just sit there with your whole team and have your fate in someone else's hands. It was a terrible situation. It wasn't fun at all."

Demetri McCamey acknowledged the disappointment but offered some optimism.

"Most definitely we were stunned. We thought we were in. We thought we had a pretty good weekend and could compete with the top teams in the country. We thought we deserved to be there, but the Committee thought otherwise. Now we've got to show they made a mistake in the NIT."

That was Weber's mantra as well.

"My message to the guys was that, if you're really angry about it, you're gonna show it on the court. It's human nature for them to be disappointed. It was a sad locker room. But at the same time I said, 'Take out that anger in the NIT and prove that you do belong. If you don't play like you're capable in the NIT, it just gives people more of an opportunity to say you didn't belong anyway.'"

Normally, #1 seeds play at home for the first three rounds of the NIT. However, a conflict with the Assembly Hall Wednesday forces the Illini to play an 8:00pm Central game in Stony Brook, New York. They are heavily favored against the lowest seed in their bracket, but travel and playing on a foreign court might be a difficult assignment for a sad team.

Weber as usual tried to lift the team's spirits by finding a silver lining.

"I told the guys we have really played better on the road than maybe at home lately. Maybe it will help us focus and be ready. Stony Brook is 12-1 at home. I don't know what the size of their arena is. We're gonna have to be ready to play. It doesn't matter who you play this time of year, it will be a difficult game to play.

"If we would find a way to win the first game, we would come back and play at home second and third round. We would play the winner of Kent State and Tulsa. Ironically, those are the two teams we faced in South Padre last year. We won both games in close games."

Weber pointed to recent Big 10 successes in NIT play and his firsthand experiences.

"I challenged them last night to come with the same vigor and energy whether we were in the NCAA or NIT. This will be a test of our maturity. Penn State last year had a great run, a great opportunity for their program.

"Ohio State, the same guys that beat us yesterday, two years ago won the NIT as freshmen. It was a nice building block, confidence builder for them. Obviously we'd like something different, but hopefully we can take advantage and make a nice run.

"I was involved in two NIT's while at Purdue. We got to New York, and it was a great experience. In 800-900 games, I still have memories of the games in Madison Square Garden. I hope the kids have that goal.

"Right now, we have a chance to play five games and see if we can win an NIT championship. It probably doesn't mean as much as an NCAA bid, but it would be good experience for our guys."

Cole sees benefits to the NIT.

"I think it's gonna be huge for the younger guys. Any game you can get those guys is gonna be great. I thought we had a real mindset change this weekend. I thought we played great in the tournament. I'd like to see if we can peak out and win this thing. It would be a cool experience to go to New York."

McCamey sees the NIT as a stepping stone for better things next season.

"I feel like this year's already over. With the NIT, especially with our team we have just about everybody coming back. So we can play more games together to build team chemistry, see what we have to work on. If we do those things over the summer, we could do good things next year."

McCamey is like all Illini fans. He believes they should be in the NCAA dance yearly. Recent disappointments are already motivating the team to make sure next season isn't a repeat of this year.

"We didn't make it freshman year. Then we came out with Chester (Frazier) as the leader and everybody accepted their roles. There were no arguments or team conflicts, and we got to the NCAA Tournament.

"I think all the players will be humbled this season and will put on weight, get in the weight room and do the little things to help you win ball games."

Cole knows winning the NIT doesn't carry the same thrill as the NCAA, but he agreed it might still offer benefits for next season.

"I think we have to look at the NIT as a preseason. People aren't gonna get giddy if we win the NIT. The main thing is what it would bring for next year with some new recruits, throw them into the equation and see how good we could be."

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