CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coaches and players began to worry when Florida’s name appeared on the NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday.
They increasingly became sicker to their stomachs as UTEP, Utah State and Minnesota popped up on their television screen.
When finally the 65-team field was named, and Illinois wasn’t among those selections, there was certainly sadness felt among the team, but there was no shock. Ultimately, the Illini realized they were the ones responsible for sealing their fates with losses to Bradley and Utah early in the season and with a home loss to Minnesota in February.
Now, the Illini are a No. 1 seed in the NIT and will face Stony Brook in the opening round on Wednesday. Illinois will be on the road for the first game due to a scheduling conflict with Assembly Hall.
“I don’t think we have anyone to blame expect our self when it comes down to it,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “It starts with me just getting the guys to be ready early in the season. We let some games slip by that ended up costing us. Then when it really comes down it, it probably comes down to the Minnesota at home where we have an opportunity to put a bigger gap between you and Minnesota in the standings.”
The difference between Illinois and Minnesota was slim. Illinois finished 10-8 in the Big Ten; Minnesota was 9-9. The Illini defeated Wisconsin and lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament; the Gophers topped Michigan State and Purdue and lost to Ohio State. Illinois was 19-14 overall and ranked 75th in RPI; Minnesota was 21-12 and 59th in RPI.
In their lone meeting, Minnesota defeated Illinois at home 62-60 on Feb. 27. It was one of Illinois’ most sluggish games. The Illini scored just 14 points by halftime and shot 23 for 72 from the field. They did rally late and had a chance to tie the game, but their shot at the buzzer fell short.
“Even though we felt we’re a better team with the eye test this past weekend, it’s tough to say, ‘We’re better than this team when they beat you at home,” Illinois junior co-captain Bill Cole said.
Cole stayed away from the television Sunday until it was time to join his teammates for the selection show on Sunday. He just couldn’t deal with all the Bracketology talk, and everyone’s mixed opinions of whether the Illini were in or out of the NCAA Tournament.
Having to watch the show wasn’t any easier either.
“One of the hardest things I’ve been through in a long time,” Cole said. “Just the disappointment was huge. To sit there and watch teams we probably thought we’re better than a lot of them, just to see them to be picked and us to slide through, that was tough.”
It was the second time in three years that Illini missed out on the tournament. Weber made it in his first four years at Illinois, but just once since then.
“It’s disappointing, there’s no doubt,” Weber said. “We thought we had taken a nice step last year ... You had three main guys back and added a group of freshman. I told you guys from the beginning we’d go through some growing process, and I was worried about some things.”
Illinois junior co-captain Demetri McCamey thought the team’s absence this season would drive him for next year.
“Especially me, I’m a kid growing up and dreaming of playing in a Final Four and trying to win a national championship, especially for the state of Illinois,” McCamey said. “It puts the hunger in me and makes me want to work harder
“It’s really disappointing, but you can’t complain. You just go to get better.”
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.