Two down, and.........three to go? The Fighting Illini continued their run in the NIT Tournament with a convincing 73-58 win over the Kent State Golden Flashes on Monday night, and in the process, moved into the quarterfinals of the tourney and only need one more win to earn a return trip to New York, this time with a little more meaning. Rewind back to last week with me for a moment when the Illini traveled to Stony Brook, New York to battle the Stony Brook Seawolves on their home court, despite being given the #1 overall seed in the tourney. You see, a little thing called Cirq du Soleil was booked at the Assembly Hall, and Huff Hall on campus didn't have a regulation sized court. Plus, some goofy rule about games not being played at neutral sites in this tournament left no choice than to move the game to the opponent's floor, hence Stony Brook. This was a huge deal for the school, and they came out playing like it, too. But, in the end, the Illini were just too physical, and they eaked out a 76-66 victory, moving them into their matchup with Kent State.
Nobody was really excited to miss the NCAA Tournament and settle for the NIT, but there's an old adage that goes something like "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Can the same be said for apples? Or, in this case, The Big Apple? Spurned from the NCAA, the Illini made it their mission to play to win the NIT, and so far, they are holding up that claim. The next chink in the armor comes on Wednesday evening when the Illini host the Dayton Flyers (8:00 pm central time, ESPN2) in the third round, or as I like to call it, the quarterfinal round of the NIT. The winner of this game gets to play in Madison Square Garden in the Final Four. There are still some big names left in the NIT field, and the Illini have the possibility of running up against some of these teams down the road. They may even have some scores to settle with the teams for past meetings in the NCAA Tourney. Virginia Tech (2008 NCAA, loss), North Carolina (2005 National Championship, loss), and the game on Wednesday against Dayton (1982 NIT, loss and 1990 NCAA, loss). Previous records can be eliminated in these situations, but I thought it would still be fun to recount the past meetings that the Illini have had with the aforementioned schools and the sweet revenge that the possibility of winning an NIT Championship would be. Yes, I know it is not the "Big Dance", but it is still a trophy and all the players that I talked to after the Illini win on Monday night agrees with me.
Actually, the Illini have a chance to play on the parquet of MSG four times out of their next seven games, because the Illini will be in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York coming up in November. When the season ended in Indianapolis and the Illini were left out of the 65 team NCAA field, Coach Bruce Weber told the guys that this NIT opportunity was similar to an early season tournament for next season. All they are losing are Dominique Keller, who has seen limited action the past few weeks, Richard Semrau, who is leaving the program at season's end and never was much of a factor this year, and spiritual leader Bubba Chisholm. There may be another one or possibly two that might not return, but essentially the Illini remain intact for the 2010-2011 season, plus they will be adding 3 players to the mix and also getting Joseph Bertrand back from his redshirt season. All the more incentive to play as a team and get better, so that when they season officially starts, they can pick up where they left off. Literally.
Uusally only 3 teams end up winning their last game of the season, the eventual NCAA Champion, plus the NIT Champ and third-place winner. The Illini can possibly lay claim to the latter two scenarios, and they are just one win away from getting a chance to do so.