Home > Uncategorized > NCAA gives Illini a No. 9 seed, plenty of storylines

NCAA gives Illini a No. 9 seed, plenty of storylines

CHAMPAIGN – So the NCAA Tournament Committee doesn’t consider storylines, huh?

The 10-member panel’s decision to place Illinois as a No. 9 seed in Tulsa, Okla., drew a chuckle from the assembled media covering Selection Sunday in the Memorial Stadium press box.

Actually, some reporters began laughing as soon as Kansas (the No. 1 seed) and UNLV (No. 8 seed) were placed at the same site in the Southwest bracket – before Illinois was revealed as an at-large bid – predicting the Illini would complete the perfect package for one corner of the bracket.

With former Illini coaches Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Bill Self (Kansas) blocking the Illini’s path to the Sweet Sixteen, media won’t have to reach for angles this week.

“I think they always look for storylines to add to the drama of March Madness,” said Illini coach Bruce Weber, who succeeded Self and coached against Kruger as an assistant coach at Purdue.

“I’m sure CBS appreciates it.”

Kruger won one Big Ten regular season title, advanced to two Big Ten Tournament championship games and won three NCAA Tournament games in four seasons (1996-2000) at Illinois.

“A guy I’ve known for a long, long time,” Weber said.

Self took over for Kruger and claimed a share of two Big Ten regular season titles, won the 2003 Big Ten Tournament and led the Illini to an Elite Eight appearance in 2001 and a Sweet Sixteen in 2002. After the 2002-03 season, Self left for Kansas, where he won the 2008 national championship to go along with seven straight Big 12 Conference titles.

Most of the current Illini players are too young to distinctively remember Kruger – the seniors were in grade school when the former Illinois coach jumped to the NBA to coach the Atlanta Hawks. All are familiar with Self’s work at Kansas, and Demetri McCamey was recruited by the former Illini coach.

But for an Illini team that had missed two of the last three tournaments, the storyline was a happy one as long as its name appeared on CBS’ hour-long bracket unveiling.

Weber was absent from the team’s celebration at the Ubben Basketball Complex. Nerves led the eighth-year coach out the door of his office and the building for a sunset stroll. He didn’t see the Illini’s name flash across the television. A sudden stream of congratulatory text messages tipped him off to the happy – or relieving – news.

“I’m excited, but it’s relief also just because you didn’t know,” Weber said. “Last year was so hard to deal with.”

Its No. 9 seed showed Illinois was firmly in the tournament despite unrest from fans. Though seeing bubble teams like UAB, Clemson and Penn State pop up on the TV screens in the players’ lounge added to the uncertainty of the unknown.

“It wasn’t fun to watch the first two brackets go by, but I was still pretty confident we were in,” senior Bill Cole said. “A big sigh of relief and everyone jumped up and kind of hugged each other and was cheering really loud when we saw our name called.”

Most Illini fans that called into the radio show Friday afternoon following a 60-55 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal – the latest inexplicable late-game collapse  – said the 2010-11 squad doesn’t deserve a NCAA Tournament invitation. One even suggested that Bruce Weber and the Illini athletic department turn down a bid.

Back to reality, the Illini found a way in thanks to an expanded field (three more teams than last year) and the mediocrity among the six power conferences. Like the 2009-10 team that missed last March’s field of 65, this team has stumbled into March, losing 10 of its final 16.

“We’ve had some good moments. We’ve had some disappointing moments,” Weber said. “I’m just hoping for the kids’ sake and the program’s sake, we can finish on a positive note.”

The four Illini seniors reiterated a familiar refrain Sunday: you’re remembered most for what you do last.

What would make the season more memorable for the Illini than beating Kruger and Self – the latter of which still receives credit for recruiting the talent that Weber coached to the 2005 NCAA Championship – on the way to an unlikely Sweet Sixteen?

 Illinois has the chance to turn around a disappointing season in just one weekend at Tulsa, thanks to the NCAA Tournament Committee’s taste for drama.

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