CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois got a rude reminder Sunday night that life outside the NCAA tournament is nothing like life in it.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois got a rude reminder Sunday night that life outside the NCAA tournament is nothing like life in it. The Illini missed the NCAA tournament for the second time three seasons and, even with a top seed in the NIT, they won’t be able to open the consolation tournament at home. Assembly Hall in Champaign is booked Wednesday night for a performance by Cirque du Soleil. The Illini will open the NIT on Wednesday at America East Conference regular season champion Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y. Disappointing doesn’t quite capture the feeling Sunday night for Illini players and coach Bruce Weber. "I think it would be an understatement to say it’s been a tough day," Weber said. "I don’t think we have anyone to blame except ourselves, when it comes down to it." The Illini (19-14) opened the season at No. 23. With promising young freshmen D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul joining established third-year starters Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale, they looked like a team that could challenge for one of the top spots in the Big Ten. But losses to Utah and Bradley at the Las Vegas Invitational Tournament cost Illinois its ranking. And the Illini struggled until a month into the Big Ten season, when it won five straight and beat Wisconsin and then Michigan State. That, though, was followed by the 1-5 regular season finish. Illinois lost to tough teams down that stretch — Ohio State twice, Purdue and Wisconsin, all ranked — as well as Minnesota. Richardson has had a strong freshman year, starting all but a handful of games, scoring just over 10 points a game and often drawing the toughest defensive assignment. And McCamey, in spite of a late-season sideline run-in with head coach Bruce Weber, had a good junior season. He has averaged 15.1 points a game and 6.8 assists, best in the conference. But Davis lost his shooting touch and his starting spot for much of the conference season, and Tisdale, a 7-1 center with a slim build, struggled against the Big Ten’s beefier big men. Minnesota, despite finishing behind the Illini in the Big Ten, was one of five conference teams to make the NCAAs. The 62-60 loss to the Gophers was probably the single biggest reason Illinois didn’t make the NCAAs, Weber and some of his players said. "It’s tough to say, ‘Hey, we’re better that that team’ when they beat us at home," Illinois forward Bill Cole said. Weber declined to criticize the NCAA selection committee, but said he believes Illinois is one of the 40 or so best teams in the country. And, while calling for expansion of the NCAA tournament to 96 teams, said his team shouldn’t be penalized for all those late season losses, since four were to ranked teams. "No one had a tougher finish to the season," he said. The Illini are just five seasons removed from a trip to the NCAA final — in Weber’s first season — where they lost to North Carolina. They’ve been to the NCAAs eight times in the past 10 seasons, On Wednesday, Illinois will face Stony Brook (22-9) in an arena on Long Island that seats about 1,700 people. Neither Weber nor Cole or McCamey knew anything about the Seawolves. And none of them seemed sure the Illini will shake Sunday night’s blues. "We’ll see," Cole said. "The guys were extremely disappointed in the locker room. It’ll be tough to get out of the mind set of disappointment." Illinois’ last trip to the NIT was in 1996, Lou Henson’s last season as head coach, and ended with a first-round loss to Alabama. Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.