So, it appears that the NCAA selection committee has a sense of humor after all. After a lackluster end to the regular season and a quarterfinal flop in the Big Ten Tournament, the Fighting Illini find themselves dancing in the NCAA tournament. It is the potential matchups that are most intriguing. First, to review a little bit. Bruce Weber had his team (so we thought) playing well the last few games of the season, winning games that they were expected to get at home against Iowa and Indiana, and losing road games at Ohio State and Purdue, which were not expected to be wins. The regular season ended with the Illini at 19-12 overall, and in a four-way tie at 9-9 in the Big Ten standings. By virtue of the tie-breaker system, the Fighting Illini earned the fifth seed, and faced off against #4 seed Michigan, who also finished 19-12 overall and in that tie with the Illini. Normally these 4-5 matchups are toss-ups, and the Illini had defeated the Wolverines in their only meeting of the season 54-52 back on February 16th in Champaign, a game that the Illini were lucky to win. The Illini started off on the short end against the Wolverines, but battled back and actually took control near the end of the half, leading 34-23 at the break. That is where things literally fell apart. As has been all too common this year for the Illini, they play well for 30 minutes, then falter down the stretch. Friday's game against Michigan was no exception, as the undersized Wolverines whittled away at the Illini lead, and eventually took control. Many of the people over at Conseco Fieldhouse were looking around at each other, wondering what was going on. But, in all actuality, we have seen this story before, all too many times. Before the Illini had knew what hit them, the 11 point lead evaporated and Michigan kept making their shots, while the Illini were not connecting on theirs. The result was yet another defeat that could have been avoided, something that this 2010-11 Illini team is no stranger to. Some blame the coach, and rightly so. After all, he was handed the keys to a luxury car when Bill $elf left and in the process, has managed to wreck that vehicle in the span of 5 short years. Yes, he finished runner-up in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, but that was with $elf's players. The players themselves have also been blamed, and you cannot disagree with that sentiment either. This senior laden bunch has underachieved, and at times, it looks as if they just don't care about being out on the floor. A nice group of guys doesn't necessarily mean that they can play well, and often they appear to lack toughness. So what can be done about this? It might be too late to be asking that question, but I'll give it my best guess.
After the loss to Michigan on Friday afternoon, I had this sick feeling to my stomach, a feeling that I hadn't had in quite a while since covering this team. Part of me wondered what was going on, and the other part of me realized that this is the way it has been all season, so why was the other half of me even worrying about it anyway? So, I continued to watch basketball on into the evening, seeing Michigan State upset Purdue, and Penn State bounce Wisconsin from the proceedings. That didn't make me feel any better, and I'm sure the team didn't feel the best either, since they were the ones that caused this dilemma in the first place. So, we waited for Selection Sunday, in hopes that the Illini would still be considered for an at-large berth in the "Big Dance". Most bracketologists had the Illini in no matter what, but I wasn't 100% sold on the idea. During the announcing of the brackets, Penn State popped up as a #10 seed, and my feeling got a little worse. After all, the Nittany Lions had made it all the way to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament, where they were schooled by Ohio State. Then Michigan came up, which was to be expected. Could the Big Ten get 7 teams in the dance? Would Illinois be left out again?
Then, the Southwest bracket was unveiled with Kansas as the top seed. The very next seeding line featured UNLV as an 8 seed, which was followed by the Illini in at #9. The Illini face the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV in the second round of the tournament on Friday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma (approx. 8:20 pm central time, TBS). Oh great, I said. Excited to see the Illini in the field of 68, this now became what a friend of mine labeled the Illinois Invitational. You see, Lon Kruger, who coaches UNLV, was the coach of the Illini from 1998-2001, so there was a story line for you. To make matters even more intriguing, Kansas looms next for the winner of this game, featuring, you guessed it, Bill $elf as head coach of the Jayhawks. There still is some ongoing animosity toward $elf on the way he left Illinois for the Jayhawks' job, but in the last couple of years, I have allowed myself to let it go and realize that there is nothing I can do about it anyway. I would, however, like to see Illinois get a shot at Kansas to see how long we could stay with them. Think of how much Bruce Weber could recoup if he found a way to beat both the Runnin' Rebels and the Jayhawks? Still, it is good to see the Illini back in the field and here's hoping that the seniors can try to give it one final shot to make something of this season. They owe it to the fans, at least.
Get your dancing shoes on folks, because the madness is about to begin!