Illini miss out on NCAA Tournament

The Illini men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament hopes ended in disappointment Sunday evening, as it failed to crack the field of 65.

Illinois was listed by most bracketologists as a bubble team heading into CBS’ selection show, and after Minnesota fell to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game Sunday afternoon by 29 points, many believed Bruce Weber’s squad would make the field.

But the NCAA selection committee chose to go with teams such as Florida, Utah State and Minnesota instead, bursting Illinois’ bubble.

“Obviously, it’s an understatement to say it’s a tough day,” Weber said following the selection show. “I think we all knew that it was in constant rhetoric on TV. We were on the bubble — the soft bubble, in the bubble, out of the bubble. Some things didn’t happen in some conference championships and it probably made the difference.

“I think we’re one of the top 65 teams in the country,” Weber added. “I think we’re probably one of the top 40 teams in the country, and I thought we could beat some people if we played at the level we just did this weekend.”

Demetri McCamey, who led the Illini fight down the Big Ten stretch, said he thought the team would make the field after defeating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday and nearly beating Ohio State in double-overtime in the semifinals Saturday.

“We were stunned,” McCamey said. “We thought we could compete with the top teams in the country and we deserved to be there, but the committee thought otherwise.”

McCamey said he believes Illinois’ absence in the tournament is a result of its non-conference losses against Utah and Bradley back in November.

The Illini (19-14, 10-8) accepted an invitation to the NIT later in the evening for the first time since 1996. Illinois is a No. 1 seed and will play at Stony Brook in Long Island on Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT. The team is unable to host the game at the Assembly Hall because a Cirque du Soleil production is booked at the stadium from Wednesday through Sunday.

“We have the chance to play five games and see if we can win an NIT championship,” Weber said. “It probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but at the same time it would be good for our players and experience for our young guys.”

If the Illini defeat Stony Brook, they would return to Champaign to play their second-round game.

The squad must turn its emotions around quick if it wants to use the NIT as a chance to grow for next season.

“It’ll be tough to get out of the mindset of disappointment and into the preparation mind that it takes to win a tournament,” junior forward Bill Cole said.

“There’s still some really good teams.”

Meanwhile, five Big Ten squads received bids to the NCAA Tournament: Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota. The Gophers, who finished in sixth place in the Big Ten behind Illinois, most likely sealed their fate by defeating the Illini at the Assembly Hall, 62-60,on Feb. 27 and making the conference tournament finals.

Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke were all rewarded with No. 1 seeds. But Illinois’ five wins against top-25 teams did not stand out enough on its resume to impress the committee.

“We have nobody to blame but ourselves,” Weber said.