Weber: 'It starts with me'
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CHAMPAIGN – In trying to pinpoint exactly how Illinois missed the NCAA tournament again, for the second time in three seasons, you can look near and far.
There were split-second decisions against Utah in November and Ohio State in March. Utah hit a buzzer beater that served as one of the bad losses on the Illini resume. Ohio State escaped partly because Illinois couldn't get off a last-second shot – in regulation and in overtime – on Saturday.
"That's how close it is," Bruce Weber said Sunday. "But that's just how basketball goes."
Or this slide can be traced back a few years, when Illinois was whiffing on top recruit after top recruit, guys like Evan Turner, who waited for a scholarship offer that came too late. In a double-overtime win against Illinois at the Big Ten tournament, the Ohio State hero ultimately helped to end UI hopes of making the real Dance.
Choose your point of reference – last weekend or a few years ago – but it comes to the same result: Illinois, of the Big Ten, will play a road game at Stony Brook, the champion of the America East, in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday (8 p.m., ESPNU).
"I don't think we have anyone to blame except ourselves when it comes down to it. It starts with me," Weber said. "Just getting the guys to be ready early in the season. We let some games slip by that ended up costing us."
Stony Brook (22-9) is making the first postseason appearance in its 11-year Division I history. Illinois (19-14) was hoping for its 29th NCAA tournament appearance but settled for its fourth NIT berth. Though Illinois is seeded No. 1 in the NIT, it couldn't host a first-round game because Cirque du Soleil is performing at the Assembly Hall this week. If it continues to win, Illinois would host a second-round game March 22 and a third-round game March 24.
Weber acknowledged that missing the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2010 is "a disappointment," particularly because Illinois returned its top three scorers from a team that reached the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed last year.
"We thought we had taken a nice step last year. With Chester (Frazier) going down (with an injury) we didn't get the wins we had thought (in the postseason)," Weber said. "You had three main guys back and added a group of freshmen. I knew we'd go through a growing-up process. I was worried about some things. Again, it's disappointing, some of the games, the Vegas games (losses to Utah and Bradley), that maybe cost us."
Players mourned the "CBS Selection Show" from the team's practice facility. Co-captain Bill Cole, who was nervous enough he couldn't eat the pizza provided, described a scene that sounded like a basketball funeral.
"It's one of the sickest feelings I've had in a while," he said.
There were signs that Illinois was in trouble – and not just when bubble teams Utah State, Florida and Minnesota emerged on the "CBS Selection Show" on Sunday. The trouble started in Las Vegas, with a blown 16-point lead against Utah, and continued through an inexcusable 14-point first half against Minnesota on Feb. 27.
"When it really comes down to it, it really comes down to the Minnesota game at home," Weber said.
"It's tough to say, 'Hey, we're better than that team (Minnesota),' when they beat us at home,' " Cole added.
"It's a huge disappointment," co-captain Demetri McCamey said. "We had big hopes for this season because we wanted to get back to the NCAA tournament."
Perhaps to increase the Illini's odds of slipping in the back door of the NCAA tournament, Weber politicked over the airwaves. He did five interviews with ESPN networks, radio and TV, between the end of a Big Ten tournament loss to Ohio State and the "CBS Selection Show."
"I'm not sure it does any good, but you never know who's listening," he said.
Dan Guerrero, the chair of the NCAA selection committee, said the RPI by itself is not a factor. Still, the lowest RPI to ever earn an at-large berth is 74. Illinois had a 75 RPI.
"You know, they (Illinois) did impress to some degree, obviously in their performance in the Big Ten tournament," Guerrero said Sunday after the bracket was released. "But when you look at the entire body of work in a general sense, they had some situations where they lost to some teams below 100 on the RPI. They were below .500 vs. teams in the top 100. Their conference strength schedule was not the strongest."
The latter point burned Weber, who otherwise was empathetic of the committee's "difficult" job. Weber also emphasized the so-called "eye test," saying the Illini played well during a 10-game stretch that included eight games against teams ranked in the Top 15.
"Then we go double-overtime (against Ohio State) and Minnesota loses by 30 (to Ohio State). So you've got to wonder about that," said Weber, who added that he went to church, like usual, and walked his dogs to calm his Selection Sunday anxieties. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But it is what it is."
And it is an NIT berth for an Illinois team that tossed around phrases like "NCAA tournament" and "Sweet 16" before the season. As an assistant and head coach, Weber has been to the NIT four times previously, advancing to the semifinal round and the title game with Purdue in 1981 and 1982. The Final Four of the NIT is March 30 and April 1 in New York City.
"(I) still have memories of then. I've been in 800, 900 games, and I do remember playing in Madison Square Garden and (those) NIT games," Weber said. "I hope the kids have that goal. We have a chance to play five games and see if we can win an NIT championship. It probably doesn't mean a whole lot, not as much as NCAA tournament did, but at the same time it would be good for our players, our young guys, for our program to continue on."
Here are some of the last-second results that might have affected Illinois' chances of making the NCAA tournament prospects:
Utah 60, Illinois 58
Freshman Shawn Glover banked in a breakaway runner as the Illini blew a 16-point lead to lose at the buzzer in Las Vegas.
Minnesota 62, Illinois 60
In the critical loss that doomed Illinois, a last-second jump shot from D.J. Richardson bounced off the rim.
Ohio State 88, Illinois 81 (2OT)
The Illini had the final possession in regulation and overtime but couldn't get off a shot in time.
Ohio State 58, Michigan 56
If Evan Turner doesn't make a 37-foot buzzer beater to beat Michigan, Illinois wouldn't have played the mighty Buckeyes.