By JEFF HUTH
Despite a late-season fade, the Illinois women’s basketball team still holds out hope of being invited to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
Should the on-the-bubble Illini (16-13) see their NCAA aspirations burst by four losses in their last five games, however, coach Matt Bollant’s team wouldn’t be done for the season.
Next stop: the 64-team Women’s NIT.
The selections and bracket for the WNIT will be announced late Monday, after the NCAA field is revealed earlier that night. And given that Illinois tied for fifth place in the final Big Ten standings, it would be positioned to receive a WNIT automatic bid as the conference’s highest-finishing team not in the NCAA field.
If the Illini are a lock for the WNIT, what’s yet to be determined is whether they would get to play one or more games at the Assembly Hall. All WNIT games are hosted by participating schools, and Bollant said Illinois has informed WNIT officials that it would be eager to play as many times as possible on its home court.
In the Illini’s case, that could be as many as three. Illinois would have access to the Assembly Hall through each of the first three rounds of the WNIT, according to Maria Ochoa Woods, the senior women’s administrator in the UI athletic department.
“After that, we would have to be on the road,” Bollant said.
That’s because the Assembly Hall already is booked for other events during the WNIT’s fourth round, semifinals and finals should the Illini advance that far.
The Assembly Hall is spoken for March 23 — with the Winter Jam 2013 Christian Music Tour — when the WNIT’s second round begins. However, the WNIT calendar allows for the scheduling of second-round games March 24 and 25.
“We try to work with the participating schools as much as possible on their facility availability,” WNIT director Renee Carlson said. “That is one reason that we give a range of dates for each round. If we are able to work around a school’s constraint, we do our best to do that.”
There are similar scheduling windows of two or three days for all WNIT rounds except for the championship game, which is locked in for April 6. During the fourth round and semifinals, the windows weren’t large enough for the Assembly Hall to accommodate two events — previously scheduled entertainment shows and an Illini game.
Factors that can squeeze the window include the extra time needed for the venue to transition from one event to the next.
“It is not always that an event is happening, but (that) the preparation for the event is large,” said Kathy Hug, UI assistant athletic director for event management.
The 64-team field for the Women’s NIT will be announced late Monday. The dates for the tournament:
Round 1 March 20-22
Round 2 March 23-25
Round 3 March 27-29
Round 4 March 30-April 1
Semifinals April 3-4
Championship April 6