CHAMPAIGN — Not even an hour after it was announced on Sunday night that second-seeded Illinois would be playing an NIT game on Wednesday (6 p.m., ESPN2) at seventh-seeded Boston, Illinois juniors Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu were on the court at the Ubben Basketball Complex getting up shots as music blared from the speakers at the Illini practice facility.
For a lot of major conference programs, where the goal year in and year out is to reach the NCAA tournament, a trip to the NIT is often viewed as a disappointment. And make no mistake about, second-year coach John Groce, who led the Illini to a win in last year’s NCAA tournament, expects his program to be an NCAA regular once it gets its footing. But with a young team featuring just two seniors, this upcoming postseason assignment is viewed as an opportunity for the young Illini to compete for a championship, to create some more momentum going forward.
“It’s OK to be disappointed, but we will never be discouraged. I think those guys have really adhered to that throughout the course of the year. (They have) obviously experienced and reaped some dividends from that late in the year,” Groce said.
Making Sunday’s announcement even sweeter for the Illini is that as recently as Feb. 8, they were counted out of any potential postseason involvement. Illinois was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak and the record had dropped to 13-10. But a late-season surge, including wins in five of the last seven games, has afforded the Illini (19-14) a chance to continue playing.
“For our guys to continue to fight and battle through like they did and grind it out and put themselves in a position like they were in today, we’re certainly proud of the way they’ve responded,” Groce said.
The team gathered Sunday night at Groce’s home for a team dinner and to watch the NIT announcement. Immediately afterward, the coaching staff made its way to Ubben to begin breaking down film in preparation for the Terriers.
Because of the renovation of State Farm Center, Illinois cannot host any postseason games. Wednesday’s NIT opener will be played on Boston’s campus at the 7,200-seat Agganis Arena. During the stretch where the Illini have won five of seven, four of the wins were on the road or at neutral sites.
In their last trip to the NIT in 2010, top-seeded Illinois opened the tournament with a game on the road against Stony Brook.
“I know that we’ve played some pretty good basketball on the road here of late and I think that’s a trend we want to have as we continue to move our program forward,” Groce said. “We’ve been dealt cards all year and we’ve played them and that’s what we’re going to do in this case as well.”
The Terriers (24-10) received an automatic bid to the NIT by virtue of winning the Patriot League’s regular-season title. They lost in the conference tournament championship game to American, played at Agganis Arena. This will be Boston’s third postseason appearance in the last four years, including a trip to the 2011 NCAA tournament under current Penn State coach Patrick Chambers.
This will be the first time Boston has hosted a Big Ten program since Michigan visited during the 2005-06 season.
“What a great opportunity for our university and basketball program to have a chance to host such an illustrious program like Illinois,” Boston coach Joe Jones said. “I know (Groce) pretty well, he’s a good friend of mine. I have a lot of respect for their program. We’ll have to be ready to play Wednesday because they are a terrific team.”