Illini still have NCAA work to do
One month from today, college basketball teams and their fans will tune to CBS to find out who’s in the NCAA tournament, who they’re playing and where.
Between now and Selection Sunday, teams will play themselves into the tournament, out of it, or up and down the seed lines.
Then the fun begins.
The top of college basketball has been like a game of musical chairs, with the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 changing for five straight weeks at one point.
Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, in the third year of a five-year stint on the NCAA tournament’s selection committee, can’t remember it being as unpredictable as it is now.
“I think this is a little different than the first two years I served. There’s more parity toward the middle,” Barnes said. “As we get to selection and ultimately seeding, there are going to be a lot of teams in those middle teams, once you get past the second line, that have similar resumes. It’s just going to be a particularly challenging year to select and seed.”
Illinois is the poster child of an unpredictable season.
Thought by many to be a bubble team at best 10 days ago, John Groce’s club is squarely in the field of 68, thanks to an upset of top-ranked Indiana, a road win at Minnesota and a beatdown of a Purdue squad it lost to last month.
Mock brackets show the Illini as high as a No. 5 seed and as low as a 10.
“It’s been impressive how they’ve responded to adversity. I really thought we were in for a repeat of last year’s meltdown,” BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart said. “It looked like things were getting away from them, and that home loss to Northwestern was a real low point. After the quick start, they started to melt down, but you go back to that Thursday night at home against No. 1 Indiana, that improbable win. Indiana didn’t put them away and they handled adversity.”
The NCAA invited a group of 20 media members to Indianapolis this week to simulate the selection committee’s process under the guidance of the 10 committee members, including chairman Mike Bobinski.
During the two-day process at the NCAA’s headquarters, the members selected the field of 68 teams and bracketed them under the same guidelines the actual committee uses.
Illinois was the most talked-about team in the field.
“They were the most surprising team,” said CBSChicago.com’s Adam Hoge, on the mock selection committee. “Once we got to seeding Illinois, they kept moving up. Everyone wants to look at that Indiana win last week, but the win that stands out more than any other — the best nonconference win in the entire country out there — was Illinois beating Gonzaga on the road. It was more than enough to get the committee to ignore the Northwestern loss, to ignore the Purdue loss and really say ‘This is a good team.’ “
Illinois ended up as a No. 5 seed opening against Creighton in San Jose, Calif.
“I was a little skeptical about Illinois and a 5 seed seems really high,” Hoge said. “But we went through the process and continued to look at everything, that’s where they ended up.”
The real selection committee will have a conference call the Saturday before selection week to trade last-minute information.
Said Barnes: “It really is about our interest in trying to be as transparent as we can. The most valuable way to do that is to take media members through a mock selection. We put everything out there. Anything we do, they’re involved in and they know exactly what the process is. It’s a really good exercise to de-mystify the process and dispel some of the conspiracy theories out there in terms of how things are done.”
Between now and Selection Sunday, Barnes and the other nine members of the selection committee will be watching basketball — lots of it. Barnes knows every game that’s on TV. Some he’ll watch live, others on his DVR. The NCAA also covers expenses should he feel the need to travel to see teams under consideration in person.
That’s only part of how the committee members gather insight.
“Conferences are providing weekly updates on where their teams are, players of the week, every time there’s a game in the conference, we get the stats,” Barnes said. “If a player’s injured or if someone is ineligible or suspended, that information comes out of our conference monitor and we utilize those conferences that we’re assigned to. We use that information, and they do a tremendous job of providing information to us.”
In terms of conference strength, no league is more highly regarded as the Big Ten. The league figures to get seven teams in the field, with Iowa making a push to be the eighth.
“I keep flashing back to that ‘88-89 season when Michigan and Glen Rice won it all. The Flyin’ Illini were in the Final Four that year and Indiana had a good team,” Dienhart said. “To me, this year is on par with that, if not a cut above. At least two potential Final Four teams in the Big Ten this year like 1989.”
Of course, the situation is fluid. If Illinois slips up — like tonight at Northwestern — brackets will change.
“If they can get close to (.500 in the Big Ten) and don’t lose to Penn State or in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, they should be in,” ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said. “They’re going to be better than any other team that might have their same record.”
Without wins against Gonzaga or Butler in the title game of the Maui Invitational, Lunardi said the Illini would likely be on the outside looking in.
“Look around the Big Ten, who has a more impressive collection of wins? Michigan State has a nice collection,” Dienhart said. “Illinois’ collection of big wins is as impressive as anybody’s at this point.”