- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois college basketball has seen some dark years in the last decade.
The state didn’t place a single team in the NCAA tournament in three of the last six seasons. Only the Illinois Fighting Illini kept the state from complete embarrassment with tournament appearances as a No. 5 seed in 2009, a No. 9 seed in 2011 and a No. 7 seed last season.
The last time a state team other than the Illini made the tournament was in 2007 when Southern Illinois was still riding high. That was also the last year the state had two tournament teams. The state landed three tournament teams in 2006 with Bradley joining Illinois and Southern Illinois.
But as bad as the state has been in recent years, it’s even worse this season. The state is not only likely headed to another season without an NCAA tournament berth, but most of its teams are struggling to stay above .500 in conference. Of the 13 teams in Illinois, only Chicago State and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville have winning records in conference.
Here’s a look at the present and future for all 13 teams in the state:
Illinois (14-10, 3-8 Big Ten), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2013
Illinois was expected to return to reality after a 12-2 start, which was inflated by a win over a suspect Missouri team, but no one could have predicted the Illini’s dramatic fall. They have won twice in 2014, and both those victories came against the conference’s worst team, Penn State. Between their two wins over the Nittany Lions, the Illini suffered eight consecutive losses. Illinois is likely headed to its third consecutive season under .500 in the Big Ten and its second under coach John Groce. Lack of scoring has been Illinois’ biggest problem as of late as the Illini averaged 55.1 points during an eight-game losing streak. With even the NIT unlikely at this point, it’s best to look to next season when transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible and the arrival of Leron Black, Groce’s first top-50 recruit. The Illini will also return leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and improving freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Expectations should be high next season.
Northwestern (12-12, 5-6 Big Ten), last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
It’s strange to say considering its start to the season, but Northwestern may just be the state’s best team right now. After a 7-6 nonconference record, which included losses to DePaul and Illinois State, and opening the Big Ten with three consecutive losses, the Wildcats have since gone 5-3 in conference and pulled off upset wins over Illinois, which was then ranked, and Wisconsin. No other team in the state has multiple wins over ranked opponents. An improved defense has turned the tide for Northwestern. It allowed an average of 52 points in its five conference wins. It’s too bad Northwestern had such a spotty nonconference season because it’s the type of team the NCAA tournament likes as the Wildcats have gotten better over time. A recent loss to Nebraska didn’t help either. Northwestern’s tournament drought is likely to continue, but it’s been a respectable first season for coach Chris Collins. He may still be at least a few years from knocking on the tournament’s door as the rebuilding process is just beginning with Drew Crawford graduating after this season.
DePaul (10-14, 2-9 Big East), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2004
Just when you thought it couldn’t get much worse for DePaul, it announced four-year starter and leading scorer Cleveland Melvin was no longer enrolled at the school on Monday. Melvin’s presence wasn’t going to change the shape of another disappointing season in Lincoln Park, but it’s still another bump for a bump-ridden program. The Blue Demons are on a six-game losing streak in a weakened Big East and are headed toward another season in the conference’s basement. DePaul coach Oliver Purnell has gone 8-57 in conference play in four years. Former DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright was 20-51 in the Big East when he was fired after 4 ½ seasons. The school has gone 29-122 in conference play since joining the Big East in 2005 and hasn’t won more than three conference games in a season since the 2007-08 season. Purnell likely has at least one more season to turn the Blue Demons around. DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto signed Purnell to a seven-year contract. Freshman Billy Garrett Jr. and Tommy Hamilton are reasons for hope, but it’ll still be a young team next season as the Blue Demons also lose Brandon Young to graduation.
Illinois State (13-11, 6-6 Missouri Valley), last NCAA tournament appearance: 1998
Illinois State had one of the state’s better nonconference seasons, but the Redbirds haven’t fared as well lately. They defeated Northwestern, DePaul and previously-ranked Dayton in nonconference play and had a 4-2 record at one point in the Missouri Valley. A recent four-game losing streak put them in the conference’s second tier of teams. The Redbirds’ offense struggled during that spurt, which included scoring a season-low 45 points against Bradley. The program could move forward next season with the team’s top seven scorers returning.
Southern Illinois (10-16, 6-6 Missouri Valley), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2007
It’s crazy to think Southern Illinois hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2007. After reaching the tournament six consecutive seasons, the Salukis are likely not going this season for a seventh consecutive one. Chris Lowery is to blame for the program’s demise, but it’s been slow goings for second-year coach Barry Hinson so far. Southern Illinois’ nonconference season was a disaster with losses to Chicago State, Austin Peay, St. Bonaventure, San Diego and Miami (Ohio). The Salukis went 4-9 in nonconference play. The Missouri Valley is down, but Southern Illinois has been playing better as of late and is 6-6 in conference. Sophomore guard Anthony Beane is a reason for some optimism for the program.
Bradley (11-14, 6-6 Missouri Valley), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2006
Bradley’s season was derailed during a 2-12 stretch from Nov. 17 to Jan. 14. The Braves have improved as of late and have won five of their last seven games. Bradley coach Geno Ford has a chance to finish over .500 in conference for the first time in his three years. The Braves were 18-17 overall and 7-11 in conference last season. Senior guard Walter Lemon Jr. has helped to spark the recent success as he’s scored 20 or more points in the last four wins. Bradley will graduate its top two players in Lemon Jr. and Tyshon Pickett.
Loyola (9-15, 4-8 Missouri Valley), last NCAA tournament appearance: 1985
A transition into the Missouri Valley was expected to provide a rocky season for Loyola. The Ramblers have held their own for the most part and are in eighth place out of 10 teams. Of their 15 losses this season, eight have been by five points or less. The team has potential. Loyola’s top seven players will return next season. Redshirt freshman Milton Doyle, a Kansas transfer, could be coach Porter Moser’s ticket to success in the near future. Doyle is averaging 16.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals.
Illinois-Chicago (5-19, 0-10 Horizon League), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2002
UIC seemed to be headed in the right direction with last season’s success, which included a CIT appearance, but the Flames have proven otherwise this season. UIC is on a 13-game losing streak and hasn’t beaten a Division I team since Dec. 14. It’s not where UIC coach Howard Moore would like the program to be in his fourth season. The program had been moving forward prior to this season. UIC’s defense was a strength last season, but it’s allowing 73.6 points a game this season. The Flames will lose leading scorer Kelsey Barlow after the season, but will return 12 players on their roster.
Chicago State (10-12, 5-3 WAC), last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
Chicago State has been one of the state’s bigger surprises this season. The WAC may not be the toughest conference in the country, but the Cougars certainly weren’t expected to be 5-3 in conference at this point. They’re in fourth place in the WAC and just 2 ½ games behind first-place Utah Valley. The Cougars also defeated Southern Illinois and lost to DePaul in overtime during their nonconference schedule. Quinton Pippen, Scottie Pippen’s nephew, is second in league play with a 19.6 scoring average. Chicago State is benefiting from an older team as coach Tracy Dildy has 12 juniors and seniors on his roster.
Northern Illinois (10-12, 4-6 MAC), last NCAA tournament appearance: 1996
Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery may be saving his job with a respectable season. The Huskies went 10-49 in his first two seasons, and another horrific season could have meant his departure, especially with a new athletic director in place. Defense has been essential to Northern Illinois’ wins this season. Three of its conference wins came when holding its opponent to less than 50 points. Scoring can still be a challenge for the Huskies. The team does have some youthful players who could get further them along in the next few seasons.
Western Illinois (9-14, 3-5 Summit), last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
Western Illinois is another team that has dropped off after a successful 2012-13 season. The Leathernecks went to the CBI tournament last year and went 22-9 overall and 13-3 in conference. Western Illinois is still among the nation’s top defensive teams, allowing just 61.6 points a game, but its offense has been lacking. The Leathernecks have only one player averaging double figures in points. Freshman Garrett Covington is reason for hope as he’s averaging 14.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in his first season.
Eastern Illinois (9-15, 6-6 OVC), last NCAA tournament appearance: 2001
Eastern Illinois had a rough nonconference slate going 3-9, including a 60-32 loss to Western Illinois. The Ohio Valley, especially the West, isn’t that strong, but the Panthers are now winning some conference games in coach Jay Spoonhour’s second season. Senior Sherman Blanford recently had a 30-point game in a win over Tennessee-Martin. It’ll continue to be an uphill climb for the Panthers. They’ve had one winning season in the last 10 years.
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (10-15, 6-5 OVC), last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville is the only other team in Illinois with a conference record better than .500. The Cougars have gotten to 6-5 in the Ohio Valley by winning four of their last five games. Donivine Stewart and Kris Davis have been a reliable backcourt this season and will remain together next season.