- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Illinois and Northwestern believed they were NCAA Tournament-bound teams when the season began.
Now, they know they're not. But with both of their seasons continuing on in the NIT -- both open play on Wednesday night on ESPNU -- they can begin building toward becoming NCAA Tournament teams next season.
"We have a chance to play five games and see if we can win a NIT championship," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "It probably doesn't mean a whole lot as the NCAA Tournament would, but it would be good for our players and experience for our young guys and good for the program to continue on."
Plenty of teams make that jump every year from competing one season in the NIT to the next in the NCAA. Seventeen teams from the 2008 NIT made the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Ten teams from last year's NIT propelled themselves into the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Teams such as Baylor and Notre Dame were in a similar position as Illinois and Northwestern just last season.
A year ago, Baylor made a run in the Big 12 Tournament, but with a 20-14 overall record, wasn't selected for the NCAAs. Instead, the Bears went to the NIT, won four games and lost in the championship to Penn State. With a bulk of their players back this season, they improved to 25-7 overall and now are a No. 3 in the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame also was left outside the bubble following an 18-14 season a year ago. The Irish accepted their NIT invitation, won three games and lost to Penn State in the semifinals. A year later with much of the same team, Notre Dame has gone 23-11 and is a sixth seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Just two seasons ago, Ohio State had to settle for the NIT in 2008 and ended up winning it all. That Buckeyes' team included Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and David Lighty, who were all starters on this year's Big Ten Tournament championship team.
"Ohio State, the same guys that beat us [Saturday] won the NIT as freshmen," Weber said. "It was a nice building block for them, confidence builders to have the same kids, the main part of that team, play in the NIT. We obviously would like something different, but hopefully we can take advantage of it and make a run in it."
Weber realized that his players were upset about not making the NCAA Tournament, but he wanted them to channel that into their play in the NIT.
"I think we're one of the top 65 team in the country; I think we're probably one of the top 40 teams in the country," Weber said. "I thought we could beat some people if we played at the level we just did this weekend, but we don't have that opportunity in the NCAA. We do in the NIT.
"My message to the guys was, 'If you're really angry about it and frustrated, you got to show it on the court.' It's human nature for them to be disappointed. We had a sad locker room. But at the same time, I said, 'Take that anger out in the NIT and see if you can prove that you do belong. If you go and not play like you're capable of in the NIT, it just gives people more of an opportunity to say you don't belong anyways."
Illinois junior co-captain Bill Cole focused on the positives following Sunday's news. He also realized motivating his teammates was easier said than done.
"I've heard good things about that final four in Madison Square [Garden]," said Cole of the NIT's final rounds which are held in New York. "It's going to be a tough task for me and Demetri [McCamey] as team captains to try and get everyone refocused, especially during the spring time. There's a lot of distractions going on this time. I guess we'll show what kind of maturity we have. Hopefully we can use it as a building block going into next season, especially for our young guys. Getting that experience is good for them."
For Northwestern, there was more jubilation than disappointment when it was selected to play in the NIT. The Wildcats' hopes of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid evaporated midway through the conference season, and there was some doubt whether it had achieved the credentials to play in the NIT.
While Northwestern may have to wait at least one more year to reach its first-ever NCAA Tournament, junior guard Michael Thompson took pride in reaching consecutive postseason tournament for the first time in the program's history. Last season, they also reached the NIT.
"We look at it as another step," Thompson said. "The program is still making progress. This can give us momentum going into next year."
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody felt the same.
"We're real excited," Carmody said. "This is the first time in our history that we've been to back-to-back postseason tournaments. Since the NCAA has taken over the NIT, the field has increasingly gotten better. I was looking at the bracket, and there are no bad teams. They're all good teams.
"You have 96 teams still playing out of 347, and we're one of them. We're excited about doing it, especially for this team, this year. We have one senior, Jeremy [Nash], and then you have a lot of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. So it's a young team, and the more games you can play, the better."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A 2011 NCAA Tournament appearance could begin in the NIT for Illinois, Northwestern.