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Once again, Illini left to hope for invite

3/11/2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Let the campaigning begin.

Over the next 48 hours, Illinois coach Bruce Weber will be on a mission to convince everyone that the NCAA tournament selection committee should include his Illini among the 68 teams in this year’s bracket.

Weber will tout the Big Ten’s wealth of talent. He will talk about Illinois’ four top-50 RPI wins, six more top-100 wins and a 16th-ranked strength of schedule. He will also talk about Illinois passing the so-called eye test.

And Weber may get his way come Sunday. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi still believed Illinois was in the NCAA tournament field as of Friday night.

But after watching an experienced Illinois team squander a 12-point lead in the final eight minutes Friday and collapse against another bubble team in Michigan, it’s hard to walk away from the Illini’ 60-55 loss and feel as if they really deserve to be in the tournament.

Friday’s game against Michigan was thought to potentially be make or break for both teams, and Illinois broke under that pressure as it did last year when they missed the NCAA tournament cut.

With less than 10 minutes remaining in Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal, Illinois appeared as if it just might run away from the Wolverines. Illini sophomore Brandon Paul built their lead to 51-39 with a 3-pointer with 8:35 remaining.

It took five minutes, 32 seconds for Illinois to score again. And while Illinois was missing shots and turning the ball over possession after possession, Michigan climbed back into the game. The Wolverines closed the game out on a 21-4 run to ensure its own tournament chances.

“We kind of got tentative, we didn’t attack the basket as much,” Illinois senior Mike Tisdale said. “They make a few shots here and there. It’s disappointing. We had a chance. They made plays and we didn’t.”

Fellow senior Mike Davis said: “It sucks we had the game. We had it controlled the whole game. … Just to a lose game, you’re not supposed to lose. We had the game won. You let it slip out your hands. You just hope we don’t let our postseason slip out of our hands, let the tournament slip out of our hands.”

Like last season, Illinois had too much riding on the Big Ten tournament. The Illini didn’t do enough again in the regular season to put its doubters to rest.

Last year, it was non-conference losses to Bradley and Utah and a 10-8 record in an average Big Ten that did Illinois in. This season it could be a horrendous loss to UIC at the United Center and an up-and-down 9-9 conference season, which included losses to Indiana and Northwestern in an improved Big Ten.

One difference from last season is Illinois’ RPI is better. It was ranked 75th in RPI when the Illini were left out last year, but they are 38th this year.

“I feel like I we have done enough in the regular season to get us a strong bid,” Paul said. “We feel like last year we might have got robbed a bit. Hopefully, this year will be a little different.”

Tisdale was less optimistic after remembering what Illinois went through last year.

“That was our hope last year, and we’re in the same spot,” Tisdale said. “I don’t really want to get the hopes up too high. I’m going to keep praying we do. It’s out of our hands now.”

There evidently will be a lot of praying going on in Champaign over the weekend.

“We just got to pray that we’re in,” Davis said. “I’m a little nervous right now. We’re in the same spot as last year. We don’t have 20 wins.”

Weber didn’t know what to think.

“You know, I feel that we played a tough non-conference schedule, we played quality opponents, we've beaten top-50 teams, you know, we competed in one of the best conferences in the country,” Weber said. “But at the same time, we went through it last year, and you just don't know. You have to wait and see what happens over the next couple days, and if there are any upsets or anyone else sneaks in, because you don't know if you'll be the team to be left out.

“I thought if we would have won today, I would have been very confident that we'd be playing next week in the NCAA tournament. I still feel good, but at the same time we've just got to wait and see what happens with everybody else.”