CHAMPAIGN — With nine games left in its regular season, the Illinois women’s basketball team has reason to believe it still will be on the court come postseason time.
Whether the Illini will be among the Chosen 64 in the NCAA tournament, however, remains the proverbial $64,000 question.
“We’re certainly one of those teams that are on the bubble,” UI coach Matt Bollant said Wednesday. “We’ll have to see how we do down the stretch.”
Illinois enters tonight’s game against No. 24 Iowa at the Assembly Hall with an 11-8 record and in a tie for fifth place in the Big Ten at 4-3. Beating a 16-5 Hawkeyes team that’s 5-2 in the conference no doubt would help Illinois’ cause with the NCAA selection committee.
“A big game for us,” Bollant said.
One of the tools the selection committee uses in selecting the 33 at-large teams is the Rating Percentage Index. The Illini are No. 73 in the NCAA’s latest weekly RPI, but that was released hours before Illinois won Monday night at Minnesota. Other RPI simulations that are updated more frequently cast a more favorable light on the Illini.
On Wednesday, Sagarin Ratings listed Illinois at No. 46; Massey Ratings at No. 49; RealTimeRPI at No. 59; and Warren Nolan Ratings at No. 60.
Bollant suspects the Illini’s NCAA fate ultimately will rest in their final Big Ten record. Illinois was 7-5 in its nonconference schedule, a mark dragged down by a couple of losses to midmajor opponents.
“You’ve got to finish probably .500 in the Big Ten, at least for us because our nonconference wasn’t quite what we wanted,” Bollant said.
That might seem like a modest record upon which to sway the NCAA selection committee, but the conference is that good. Warren Nolan ranks the Big Ten as the nation’s No. 2 league, while RealTimeRPI pegs it at No. 3.
And Bollant is quick to point out that seven Big Ten teams have been ranked in the Top 25 at one point or another this season.
“Best the Big Ten has been since I can remember,” said the UI coach, who first coached in the conference in 2000 as an assistant at Indiana.
If an NCAA bid ultimately eludes Illinois for a 10th consecutive year, there are postseason alternatives clearly within the Illini’s reach. Between them, the Women’s NIT and the Women’s Basketball Invitational will give 80 teams that don’t make the NCAA cut an opportunity to keep the ball rolling well into March.
Barring a free-fall by the Illini in their remaining regular season and Big Ten tournament games, their place among the nation’s top 144 teams — the total entries for the three postseason tournaments — appears rock solid.
Here’s a closer look at the two alternatives to the NCAA tournament:
Like it’s male NIT counterpart, the WNIT is a fixture on the postseason basketball scene.
Starting as a 16-team event in 1998, the WNIT has since increased its field four times and grown to its current 64-team bracket.
The WNIT might be No. 2 to the NCAA tournament, but it’s matured into a solid runner-up.
“We have positioned the postseason WNIT to be everybody’s top choice if they don’t make the NCAA tournament,” WNIT director Renee Carlson said earlier this week.
The tournament consists of 31 automatic berths and 33 at-large bids. Automatic spots are extended to each team that finishes highest in its conference’s regular season standings that doesn’t get into the NCAA tournament. To be considered for an at-large berth, a team must have an overall record of .500 or better.
The remainder of the field is selected in much the same way that the NCAA chooses at-large teams, although the WNIT considers multiple RPIs.
“We have about seven or eight or nine different RPI system rankings that we use,” Carlson said. “But then beyond that we break down each team. We look at injuries, streaks, who makes up the roster, how a team finished.”
All games are hosted by participating schools, but teams that travel are expected to foot part of the bill, up to $10,000. Beyond that, the WNIT will cover 100 percent of additional travel costs.
“Our thought process is, a team shouldn’t be penalized for winning, so this encourages them to keep winning without administrators worrying about budget,” Carlson said. “And it does give a team a chance to budget for the postseason.”
Typically, the WNIT pairs teams regionally in the early rounds to reduce travel costs.
“You don’t see a lot of teams in the first round or two flying,” said Bollant, who coached in the WNIT in previous stops at Wisconsin-Green Bay and, as an assistant, at Indiana and Evansville.
Bollant indicated that if Illinois ended up playing in the WNIT, it would be interested in bidding to host. First-round hosts must guarantee the WNIT $6,500, while the second-round guarantee is $7,500.
“Depending on (availability) with Assembly Hall, we would like to host the WNIT if we’re playing in that,” Bollant said.
This is the new kid on the postseason block, making its debut in 2010. As with the WNIT, all games are held on the campuses of participating teams, with the higher seed given the option of hosting.
After eliminating teams clearly bound for the NCAA tournament, the WBI develops and updates a watch list of candidates for its event.
“We have a list of about 150 teams right now that we’re kind of eyeing, and every week we’ll go back and see how they did last week in conference play and weed teams out that way,” WBI executive director Sallie Gordon said.
According to the tournament’s website, host teams guarantee $10,000 for the first and second rounds, $12,000 for the semifinals and final. They keep all revenue. Travel teams are compensated $7,000 for the first and second rounds, $9,000 for the semifinal and final.
In its short history, the WBI has crowned champions from large and small conferences alike. Minnesota won last year’s tournament, with Appalachian State and Alabama-Birmingham preceding the Gophers as first-place trophy winners.
“I think it’s one of those events that are good for the BCS schools and the midmajors,” Gordon said.
Bollant said it’s no coincidence the reigning WBI champions opened this season 13-4.
“I think it springboarded them into their next season,” he said of Minnesota. “I think it gave them a lot of confidence coming into this year. ... It can help teams, and obviously Minnesota is a case last year where it helped them.”
If the NCAA tournament chooses to bypass Illinois, apparently there are a couple of other postseason events eagerly poised to extend an invitation.
“I think he’s made an immediate impact,” Carlson said of Bollant. “To be 4-0 on the road in the conference is amazing. A lot of veteran teams can’t do that, so I think that’s big. It’s really exciting to see how quickly and how well he’s going to turn the program around.”
Understandably, however, Bollant has his sights set on another postseason destination.
“Obviously we’d love to play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “That’s our first goal, and that’s our focus right now.
“But if we didn’t, then we’d be interested in the WNIT.”
The Illini are aiming for their 16th postseason bid:
Eight (8-8 record)
Seven (8-7 record)