Obscured by all the dust kicked up in the race for the Big Ten championship is Illinois' solid NCAA tournament standing.
With five games left before the Big Ten tournament, the Illini no longer have to worry about an invitation, only how high a seed they'll receive. Twenty wins and a top-three finish in the league should guarantee a seed no lower than sixth.
Illinois likely will see a neighbor or two in the field of 64. Four other state schools have legitimate shots at the NCAA tournament but in most cases will need to win season-ending conference tournaments for automatic bids.
If five make it, that would be an all-time high. Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams, the high-water mark is four. DePaul, Illinois, Illinois State and Loyola advanced in 1985.
Eastern Illinois is 12-3 and a half-game back of Ohio Valley Conference-leading Murray State. The Panthers would be in first had they knocked down a few free throws in Thursday's 67-65 loss at Middle Tennessee State. EIU hosts Murray State on Thursday.
Western Illinois is 8-3 and a game behind Youngstown State in the Mid-Continent Conference. The Leathernecks also have second-place Valparaiso to worry about, the Crusaders spoiling Western's tournament fun the last two seasons.
Illinois State is comfortably in control of the Missouri Valley with a 12-1 mark. At 17-4 overall, the Redbirds are 40th in the latest RPI (see C-5) but still would be on the bubble should they slip in the MVC tournament.
Illinois-Chicago is 8-2 and in second place in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The Flames took a tumble against first-place Detroit on Saturday, losing for the first time in nine games.
UIC, which never has reached the NCAA tournament, was in good shape before Saturday's slip. They're 20th in the RPI (16 spots ahead of Illinois) and have quality wins over Big Ten leader Michigan State and Illinois State.
But no MCC title may mean no bid.
"History does not help us," UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. "They'll send five from the Big Ten, five from the Big East, from the Southeastern ... By the time they're done loading up on the so-called big conferences, there's very little room for those of us who are playing hard and playing together.
"That says, 'We're not going to reward the little man.' "
Collins did not need to move to UIC to develop his stance. He felt the same way while assisting Lou Henson at Illinois, criticizing the selection process when Gene Sullivan's Loyola Ramblers and Bob Hallberg's UIC Flames were overlooked.
"I don't think it's fair, but you may be asking the wrong guy about whether the NCAA is fair or not," Collins said. "If you weigh what we've done, it's only fair that the top two teams get to go."
UIC is 18-4 overall and a favorite in its four remaining games. The Flames could be 24-4 heading into a rematch with Detroit in the MCC title game at Green Bay, Wis.
Until then, Collins will campaign for his Flames.
"I don't know if I have to, but I'll do it," he said. "I know how hard these young kids work and the long hours our staff puts in to make this a program that deserves recognition. I want to make sure we get the recognition."
UIC's quest soon becomes more palatable. The Flames will host the MCC tournament in 1999 and 2000.
– The UI's decision to move potential NCAA women's tournament games to the Assembly Hall relates directly to the outdated look of Huff Hall. Although it represents a hostile atmosphere for visiting teams, Huff is viewed as a less-than-desirable site by the NCAA.
Basically, there's not enough room for media, concessions, fans or officials.
"Sometimes, I think that's why we get some of the calls we do," UI coach Theresa Grentz said. "Officials have told me they hate this place."
Another reason to switch to the Assembly Hall is the UI's intent on hosting an NCAA women's regional in the coming years. First- and second-round games are good practice.
– Illinois could win both the men's and women's Big Ten titles, a feat that has been accomplished in the same season by one other school. Purdue pulled it off in back-to-back years, 1994 and '95.
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette. His college basketball column appears Mondays.