Uncross your fingers, Illinois: You’re in the bracket

By Lucas Deal

Being on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament is a feeling of nervousness the Illinois men’s basketball team isn’t used to.

The Illini have made a habit of clinching their NCAA Tournament bid early and eliminating the emotional roller coaster that comes with hoping and praying during the Selection Show.

This year, though, the Illini were unable to snag their bid early and were forced to play “wait and see” with the selection committee.

Warren Carter said it was the most nervous he’s been in a long time. Chester Frazier said he was so anxious he didn’t know what to do.

Shaun Pruitt said he was pretty confident the Illini would get in until Calvin Brock told him that a television analyst only expected one team from among Illinois and Purdue to punch its ticket to the dance.

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Needless to say, when Purdue’s name popped up on the TV early in the Selection Show, it didn’t bode well for Pruitt’s confidence.

But then, in the second of four possible regions, in the vaunted 5-versus-12 match up, the Illini finally saw their names pop up on the TV screen. It was a feeling of relief they never realized would be so rewarding.

“This is probably the best feeling I’ve had since the Arizona game (in 2005),” Carter said. “Today (Sunday) was such a long day – minutes felt like hours – so it felt good to finally see our names up on the screen.”

Illinois (23-11) will open the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, against Virginia Tech (21-11).

As the No. 12 seed, the Illini are one of the three lowest-seeded at-large teams to make the dance. Old Dominion and Arkansas also received committee nods as No. 12 teams.

This will be the eighth-consecutive season in the NCAA Tournament for the Illini, a streak Pruitt and the Illini are glad to have kept intact.

“We didn’t want to be the (team) that let the tradition down,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know we’ve been able to keep it going.”

While it can be said that the Illini earned their bid with Friday night’s huge win in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals against Indiana, Illini head coach Bruce Weber thinks the reason his team is in the tournament is because of their entire season’s body of work.

“When (analysts) talk about a team’s body of work, I felt like ours was pretty good,” he said. “Six teams we played in the non-conference either won their leagues or their conference tournaments and we didn’t have any bad losses.”

That being said, Weber said he was far from secure that his team would be a part of the tournament field.

“One of our SID’s (Derrick Burson) called me last night and told me Joe Lunardi had taken us off his bracket and I didn’t sleep very well because he’s been pretty accurate,” he said. “I’m just elated because, honestly, I didn’t think we were going to get in.”

The Illini will now have four days to prepare for the Hokies and their chance to prove to the committee that they were worthy of their bid.

A 12-over-5 upset is pretty common, and the Illini hope this year they’ll be the team that pulls it off.

“We’re not happy just to be playing; we’re in it to win,” Frazier said.

Added Carter: “I just want to thank the committee for giving us another chance and hopefully we can go out and play well.”

For a team that didn’t know if they would be in last night, they sure seem to be feeling a whole lot better now.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].

For more Big Ten Tournement coverage:

Illinois gets No. 12 seed in NCAA

Oden dominates Big Ten as Illini guards, free throw shooting struggle

Buckeyes outrace Badgers for title win

‘Empty possessions’ end Big Ten run