Illinois misses NCAA tournament, opens NIT on road

Illinois got a rude reminder Sunday night that life outside the

NCAA tournament is nothing like life in it.

The Illini missed the NCAAs for the second time in three seasons

and, even with a top seed in the NIT, they won’t be able to open

the consolation tournament at home.

Assembly Hall in Champaign is booked Wednesday night for a

performance by Cirque du Soleil. The Illini (19-14) will begin the

NIT on Wednesday night at America East Conference regular-season

champion Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Disappointed didn’t quite capture the feeling for Illini players

and coach Bruce Weber.

“I think it would be an understatement to say it’s been a tough

day,” Weber said. “I don’t think we have anyone to blame except

ourselves, when it comes down to it.”

Weber declined to criticize the NCAA tournament selection

committee, but said he thinks Illinois is one of the 40 or so best

teams in the country. And, while calling for expansion of the NCAA

tournament to 96 teams, he said his team shouldn’t be penalized for

all those late-season losses because four were to ranked teams.

“No one had a tougher finish to the season,” he said.

The Illini are just five seasons removed from a trip to the NCAA

final – in Weber’s first season – where they lost to North

Carolina. They’ve been to the NCAAs eight times in the past 10

seasons.

On Wednesday, Illinois will face Stony Brook (22-9) in an arena

on Long Island that seats about 1,700 people.

Neither Weber nor his players knew much about the Seawolves. And

none of them sounded sure the Illini would be able to shake Sunday

night’s blues.

“We’ll see,” forward Bill Cole said. “The guys were extremely

disappointed in the locker room. It’ll be tough to get out of the

mindset of disappointment.”

Illinois’ last trip to the NIT was in 1996, Lou Henson’s last

season as coach, and it ended with a first-round loss to

Alabama.