CHAMPAIGN – Maybe Indiana is right.
Maybe the best way to ease the sting of missing the NCAA Tournament is to choke hard on something called the “NIT snub,” then turn coolly away from the No. 3 tournament in college basketball, the CBI.
Maybe the best solution is to simply declare the season over.
That’s what Indiana Athletics Director Fred Glass did when he quickly dismissed a suggestion that a 17-15 Indiana team might want to accept a CBI invitation.
“No,” Glass said. “We’re Indiana. We don’t play in the CBI.”
Glass might be right. Maybe the only thing to be gained is inflaming the heated rhetoric that is already melting a hole in the Indiana basketball message boards. Having failed to build equity with a No. 1-seeded team last season, coach Tom Crean is now paying the price for sub-standard non-conference scheduling and not cultivating improvement within a young team that started three freshmen and a sophomore.
It’s a tough job, and Indiana holds itself to a high standard. I respect that.
Fortunately, Illinois didn’t have to contemplate the CBI. And while the NIT was not the original goal, it’s a worthwhile opportunity. While some might reject the idea outright, exposing young players to the urgency of single-elimination post-season play, having a chance to create a little more excitement and raising recruiting interest by playing well in nationally televised games in March seems like something the Illini should embrace.
And so they will starting at 6 p.m., Wednesday at Boston University.
This team has its own motivation.
In a crowded interview session inside a cramped Illini locker room at the Big Ten Tournament, Illini center Nnanna Egwu talked about how much he enjoys playing with his teammates. He spoke of how much he has appreciated the process of getting better and the manner in which this team has grown together.
“I just like playing with these guys,” he said. And although that may sound simple, it’s the only motivation this team needs to soldier on in a post-season event that is not the coveted NCAA Tournament.
Some teams are completely unmotivated to play in the NIT. If that’s the case, a team shouldn’t bother. But this team truly wants to play more basketball.
Groce’s greatest job with this team has been to get them to feel proud of staying the course, working through the painful month of January when it was difficult to solve the all-freshman bench dilemma, and believing in one another enough to become a better basketball team.
They’ve taken ownership of the improvement and they now feel obligated to see the job through.
That doesn’t guarantee a single victory in the NIT. We know Boston University will uncork a storm of 3-pointers and it might shoot lights-out Wednesday night. This might be Michigan at Illinois all over again.
But I don’t think Illinois will lose because it didn’t want to be in Boston to begin with. They want this and won’t think twice about playing away from home for as many as five games to get it.
Don’t misunderstand. This is still an Illinois team with flaws. It’s a hit-and-miss offensive team that is at least one or two shooters short. It’s a team that suffers dramatically if Egwu gets into early foul trouble. And it’s still a team with just 10 scholarship players, meaning depth is minimal.
There also are some pretty good teams in the NIT Field. SMU is a very good team and probably should have made it into the NCAA Tournament. Florida State is a wicked defensive group. We know Missouri can be dangerous.
These are capable teams that, like Illinois, have simply not been consistent enough. Which is why most of them have between nine and 14 losses.
I’ve already heard from Illini fans who just can’t stomach the idea of settling for the NIT. That’s fine. There’s plenty of college basketball going on right now to hold any fan’s interest. Keep the remote control close.
But I’m curious to see what this team can do. Maybe it’s a one-and-done exercise in futility. But maybe there’s still some additional work to be done, some improvement yet to be discovered, some growth from Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill.
I guess I’m a little like the Illini players. They’ve become an interesting team, and I’d like to see them play more basketball.