Disappointed Illini deal with NCAA snub, prepare for NIT tournament

Sunday night didn’t go as planned for the Illinois basketball team. With their NCAA Tournament hopes dashed, the Illini learned they would instead have to shift their attention to the NIT and prepare for a trip to Stony Brook, N.Y., to battle Stony Brook University on Wednesday.

For junior guard Bill Cole, being left out of the NCAA Tournament was a major blow.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve been through in a long time,” Cole said Sunday. “Just the disappointment is huge, to have to sit there and watch teams we probably thought we were better than a lot of them, just to see them get picked and us slide through, that was tough just to sit there with your teammates and take that.”

“And have to get geared up right away to go travel to New York to play another team, it’s a difficult day,” Cole added. For an Illinois basketball program that has grown accustomed to NCAA Tournament appearances and isn’t far removed from its own run to the national championship, getting geared up to play in the NIT isn’t going to be easy.

“It is what it is. And I challenged them (Saturday) night to come with the same vigor and energy no matter if we’re in NCAA or NIT,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “We’ll see. This will be a test of our maturity, there’s no doubt.”

Much of the burden for getting the squad motivated for Wednesday’s contest will fall on co-captains Cole and junior guard Demetri McCamey, who doesn’t want the squad to waste time thinking about what might have been.

“In the game of basketball, you can’t be doubting yourself about the games or the season, especially if you get a chance to keep playing,” McCamey said. “So everybody’s down about not making the NCAA Tournament, but at the same time, we’ve got a chance to prove to people that they made a mistake and go out there and prove something.

“And I think that’s bigger if you’re not in the tournament right now, to show people that you belong,” McCamey added.

While Illinois is fighting off the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament, Stony Brook is just excited to make its first postseason appearance in its 10-year Division I history. The Seawolves clinched an automatic NIT bid, winning the America East regular-season title.

“We’re just in a totally different place (than Illinois),” Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said. “We’re just thrilled to have an opportunity to extend our season … For us to still be playing is a huge honor.”Led by America East Player of the Year Muhammad El-Amin, the Seawolves finished the regular season 22-9 overall and 13-3 in conference play.

A 6-foot-5 senior guard from Lansing, Mich., El-Amin averages 16.7 points and is joined in double-digit scoring by sophomore guard Bryan Dougher (13.6) and junior guard Chris Martin (10.7).

“We’ll be very undersized for Big Ten standards, but we play very good defense and we’re tough and we’ve got some guys that can score,” Pikiell said. “We’ve had eight different leading scorers this year out of an 11-man roster.”

But Pikiell knows he’ll have his hands full with Illinois, especially when it comes to McCamey, who averages 15.1 points 6.8 assists. McCamey led the Illini with 22 points in Saturday’s double-overtime loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

“McCamey is going to be a headache for us,” Pikiell said.

With Cirque du Soleil claiming center stage at the Assembly Hall until Sunday, No. 1-seeded Illinois was forced to take its show on the road for the first round of the NIT. But Pikiell said that’s just fine with Seawolves fans, who are lining up to buy lottery tickets to the game.

And Stony Brook will be reopening Stony Brook Arena, which has been closed for construction, to accommodate the event. The 5,000-seat arena is expected to be sold out.

“Our campus is buzzing right now,” Pikiell said.

For their part, the Illini view the road game as an advantage.

“If you look at it this year we played better on the road anyway, so it probably helped us because we’re not loose, we’re more confident and we’re going in there with less pressure and things like that,” McCamey said. “So it’s just tremendous that we can win on the road.”