The Fighting Illini locked up a bid in the tournament very few people care about this weekend. Yes, it’s a first round NIT matchup with Stony Brook on their home court, in what’s sure to be a hostile environment. At 19-14, with too many losses to inferior teams to overcome their five or so wins against Top 25 teams, Illinois had to make way for UTEP and Utah State when they were both upset in their conference tourneys. Illinois and Mississippi State were likely the last two out.
Personally, I take umbrage with Minnesota getting the final Big 10 bid. They were inferior to the Illini in conference play, record against ranked teams, and strength of schedule. They did, however have fewer losses and they also beat Illinois in Champaign a few weeks back. We had to know that one would come back on us.
But the Illini really have no one to blame but themselves (couldn’t get shots at the end of regulation and OT). And the coaching staff (strategically inflexible and seemingly incapable of proper motivation). And the refs (McCamey still can’t get a call while Evan Turner gets 15 minutes with 4 fouls). And the Selection Committee.
But seriously, this sucks. It’s the second time in three years the Illini have missed the tournament. Recruiting misses of the recent past continue to haunt us, and Coach Weber cannot or will not adjust his overall strategy to his personnel. That said, all the Illini had to do on Saturday was not give up a 20-0 run to the Buckeyes by playing passive and trying to milk the shot clock. All they had to do was execute a little better in the waning seconds of regulation or overtime and they would’ve reached 20 wins and played the Gophers on Sunday. We’d be looking at a winnable game against a 5 or 6 seed, instead of an NIT booby trap in New York.
Stony Brook is coming off one of their most successful seasons and will be itching for a Big 10 scalp. The Circus is in town so we can’t count on the home court. Add to that the Orange & Blue’s notorious inconsistency and the mental letdown for a team like Illinois falling out of the NCAA tournament. Yeah, smells dangerous to me too. But who knows – maybe Bruce and the boys will go on a nice run to and make the final. Madison Square Garden is cool, and nearly all these players will be back next year.
And just think about what winning the NIT did for Penn State this year. Oh, wait…