- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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For Illinois, improbably and annoyingly, the road to the championship goes through ... Stony Brook?
The 19-14 Illini went from NCAA hopeful to vagabond No. 1 seed in the National Invitational Tournament, and I don't feel bad for them. With the circus, or more accurately Cirque de Soleil, heading to the heartland, the Illini will play their first-round Not Invited game at Stony Brook on Long Island.
"I think it would be an understatement to say it's been a tough day," Illinois coach Bruce Weber told reporters Sunday night. "I don't think we have anyone to blame except ourselves, when it comes down to it."
And that, my friends, is why I like Bruce Weber. He's honest and self-effacing, and unlike some of the hucksters who populate the college basketball world, he's got both feet firmly planted in reality.
Illinois' exile to the second tier should not be second-guessed for more than the time it takes Dunkin' Donuts to fill my everyday coffee order, or about 3.2 seconds. Are the Illini good enough to beat two teams in the NCAA tournament? Yes. If the tournament were expanded by one more team, would they be a front-runner to get that pick? Of course. Could they beat the at-large schools who made it in over them, like Wake Forest, Florida and Florida State? Sure.
Why am I still asking rhetorical questions?
The facts are the facts and the numbers are the numbers. Illinois had more losses than any at-large team, and dropped five of six down the stretch against a formidable schedule.
Illinois was 74th in the RPI rankings. Minnesota is the closest at-large team at 62, with Florida next at 56. The Sagarin ratings had Illinois at No. 59, while Florida was the closest at-large team at 48, with Minnesota (46) and Wake Forest (45) close behind.
"It starts with me just getting the guys to be ready early in the season," Weber said in Scott Powers' recap Sunday night. "We let some games slip by that ended up costing us. Then when it really comes down to it, it probably comes down to the Minnesota game at home where we have an opportunity to put a bigger gap between you and Minnesota in the standings."
Watching Minnesota celebrate on TV, after getting waxed by Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament finale, must have been torture for the Illini, who lost to the Golden Gophers 62-60 at home on Feb. 27. They also lost to rival Missouri in their game this season.
"Even though we felt we're a better team with the eye test this past weekend, it's tough to say, 'We're better than this team when they beat you at home,'" Illinois junior co-captain Bill Cole told Powers.
After beating Wisconsin, anyone who can correctly spell bracketology had the Illini just inside the bubble. But that was before New Mexico State beat Utah State (RPI of 30, Sagarin of 40) for the WAC and Houston beat UTEP for the Conference USA crown.
Those two teams -- along with perhaps Minnesota, which throttled Purdue in the Big Ten tournament -- helped send the Illini to the NIT, along with Northwestern. The Wildcats are a little happier to be playing in their second straight NIT.
Seventh-seed Northwestern plays at Rhode Island on Wednesday. (Eight is the lowest seed in the NIT, and fellow No. 7 seeds include big-name programs like Coastal Carolina, Troy and Weber State -- all of whom have more NCAA experience than the Wildcats.)
"I'm happy we made it," Northwestern point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson said. "I'm glad to still be alive and playing. We weren't sure if we were going to make it or not. I had a good feeling all day we were going to make it. I felt like we had a pretty good year."
I got so excited about the selection show Sunday, that I made a toddler cry. After covering the Blackhawks' deflating 4-3 overtime loss to Washington, I went to my longtime friends' condo just up the street on Madison.
I got there just in time for the selections, but their daughter was watching "Yo Gabba Gabba." I don't know who was the bigger baby about the situation, but it ended up with little Maylin watching her show on a laptop, contentedly I might add, while I got the big TV.
The tournament is my favorite sports event, which makes me about as unique as a Cubs fan. In that regard, I like to think of myself as a pseudo-expert, even after perusing my picks going back to 2005. Since then, the best finish I've had in an annual pool of 30-40 people is sixth. Last year, I had Pittsburgh winning it all and my picks finished 30rd and 33th out of 37.
So take what I'm about to say with a barrel of salt, but here are some upsets and predictions to look for:
In the Midwest, I'm going to ride with St. Joe's product Evan Turner's Ohio State team. "The Villain," with whom I had a great interview last month, is going to be a consensus, if not unanimous, Player of the Year from myriad magazines and newspapers and voters, and he's the perfect kind of player for this tournament.
The 6-foot-7 hybrid point forward doesn't need anyone to get him the ball, and has reliable scorers. I know everyone is on the Kansas bandwagon, and deservedly so, but I could see the Jayhawks falling to an experienced Northern Iowa team that won its second straight Missouri Valley Conference tournament, or perhaps Michigan State.
I'm taking the Buckeyes to the championship game, and not just because I'm wearing a "Club Trillion" T-shirt as I write this. Also, root for my Ohio Bobcats against Georgetown in the first round. Ohio is better than you think, with talented former Indiana player Armon Bassett on fire right now. Also, south suburban Seton Academy product D.J. Cooper scored 23 points in the MAC championship game, hitting a 3, blocking a shot and nailing two free throws at the end of overtime. Not bad for a freshman.
I think the West is going to be wide open for an underdog Final Four team. Crazy as it sounds, I think Syracuse is going to have its hands full, or 2-3 zone full, with 16-seed Vermont. The Catamounts, who knocked off the Orange in 2005, have an elite player in 6-5 forward Marqus Blakely, who leads his team in everything and literally has no "I" in his name. Guard Maurice Joseph is a Michigan State transfer, and 6-8 forward Evan Fjeld looked downright heroic playing Saturday after the death of his mother Susan on Tuesday.
But enough about pipe dreams. I think fifth-seeded Butler can make a legitimate run to the last weekend, if it gets past 12-seed UTEP. The Miners have Louisville washout Derrick Caracter, a 6-9 beast, but the Bulldogs ran the table in the Horizon and played a tough nonconference schedule.
In the East, I like Da'Sean Butler's West Virginia squad to beat John Wall and Kentucky in the Elite Eight. That's no revelation. I just don't see any major upsets in this bracket, though the Temple-Cornell winner could make some waves.
Jon Scheyer's Duke team got a fairly easy draw in the South, though I think the Blue Devils will have to gut out a win over No. 9 seed Louisville in the second round. Villanova needs to reverse its poor fortunes of late. The Wildcats will have a tough time in the second round against either St. Mary's or Richmond. Notre Dame, the sixth seed, could be a real sleeper with Luke Harangody back in playing shape.
As of Monday morning, my Final Four is Ohio State, Butler, West Virginia and Duke, with Ohio State beating WVU in the championship game.
But then again, what do I know? If you think you can beat me, go up against the ESPN Chicago personalities in ESPN's Tournament Challenge.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.