Commentary

State of the state of Illinois hoops

Erratic seasons should ensure Illinois won't be well represented in NCAA Tournament

Updated: January 28, 2010, 2:15 PM ET
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

Back in 1985, the state of Illinois was at its peak in college basketball.

With Lou Henson coaching at Illinois, Joey Meyer at DePaul, Gene Sullivan at Loyola and Bob Donewald at Illinois State, the state placed four teams in the NCAA Tournament, the most in Illinois history.

From 1969-1975, the state was at its lowest. Not a single program from Illinois reached the NCAA Tournament during that time.

In recent history, the state has had a representative every year other than 1999 and 2008.

There have been good times, and there have been bad ones. Mostly, Illinois has fluctuated somewhere in between. Over the past 25 years, the state has been shut out twice, placed one team once (Illinois in 2009), two teams 16 times, three teams five times and four teams once.

So where is the state headed in 2010?

Consider this one of those down seasons. There is a slight possibility that two teams make the NCAA Tournament, but the state could also be shut out.

Here is the state of the state:

Bradley (10-10, 5-5 Missouri Valley)

The Braves began the season as promising as anyone in Illinois. They hung with BYU and Oklahoma State and knocked off Illinois on a neutral court. They were 5-2 and building a strong résumé.

[+] EnlargeJim Les
AP Photo/Laura RauchCoach Jim Les and guard Sam Maniscalco have steered Bradley back on track with three wins in their past four games.

Then their road became rocky. On Dec. 6, assistant coach Steve Merfeld left the program after 2˝ seasons. The reason for Merfeld's departure hasn't been revealed, but it has been a topic that Bradley coach Jim Les hasn't discussed outside of a statement. The Braves lost to Western Carolina the same day Merfield left. That was followed with losses to Loyola and Illinois State before the end of 2009. Their record slid all the way to 7-9 after opening the Missouri Valley with a 2-4 record.

Bradley has turned itself around, winning three of its past four Missouri Valley games and climbing back to .500. The Braves are in a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference. Point guard Sam Maniscalco, a St. Patrick High School product, has been a major reason for the their recent success. He averaged nearly 18 points and shot 16 for 26 heading into Tuesday's loss to Creighton.

Postseason hopes: Bradley would have to win the Missouri Valley Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. The NIT is a possibility if the Braves finish near the top of the conference. Bradley reached the championship game of the inaugural CollegeInsider.com Tournament last season.

Chicago State (5-16, 0-4 Great West)

The trio of John Cantrell, David Holston and Carl Montgomery kept Chicago State in almost every game last season. With the three of them combining for nearly 60 points, the Cougars were fun to watch and competitive. Holston averaged 25.9 points. The team went a respectable a 19-13 last season.

A year later, the fun has ceased. With the graduation of Cantrell and Holston, Montgomery has been left by himself to try to carry the team. While Montgomery has held his own -- 12.5 points and 8.4 rebounds -- the rest of the team has mostly struggled. Scoring has been the Cougars' biggest problem. They have often been held to under 20 points in a half this season. Just recently, New Jersey Institute of Technology kept Chicago State to just 16 first-half points.

Postseason hopes: The Great West Conference isn't given an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so that is out of the question even if the Cougars pulled off an unlikely miraculous run. The conference tournament winner receives a spot in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Chicago State is in last place in the conference.

DePaul (8-11, 1-6 Big East)

Following an 0-18 Big East record last season and a 7-8 start to this season, which includes losses to American and Florida Gulf Coast, DePaul's administration finally said enough was enough. On Jan. 11, Jerry Wainwright was fired as the Blue Demons' coach after 4˝ seasons.

[+] EnlargeJerry Wainwright
AP Photo/Jim PrischingJerry Wainwrigh paid the price for DePaul's struggles with his job on Jan. 11.

Since then, interim coach Tracy Webster guided the Blue Demons to their first Big East regular-season win in 24 games, but no one is expecting a miracle this season. DePaul is simply out-matched in the Big East and have opened their conference schedule with a 1-7 record.

For the Blue Demons to succeed, everyone seems to agree that recruiting is the key. They need to land some of Chicago's elite players. Three of the names that have floated around as possible replacements to get the job done have been Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery and former Bule Demon and current Utah Jazz assistant Tyrone Corbin. DePaul could be without Mac Koshwal next season as well if he decides to enter the NBA Draft.

Postseason hopes: DePaul would have to win the Big East Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Demons are in 15th place in the Big East. All other postseason tournaments are unrealistic.

Eastern Illinois (11-9, 5-5 Ohio Valley)

Eastern Illinois is on its way to improving on its 12-18 record of last season, but there was a possibility for more this season. The Panthers took a major hit when seniors Romain Martin, who led Eastern Illinois in scoring over the past three seasons, needed knee surgery in November. Martin returned to the team for an eight-game stretch beginning in late December, but after being unable to return to his old form, he decided to leave the team on Jan. 19.

Martin averaged 4.4 points in his eight games back.

Junior guard Tyler Laser has stepped up his game this season. He has averaged 14.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Eastern Illinois is in fifth place in the Ohio Valley, and five games behind conference-leader Murray State.

Postseason hopes: Eastern Illinois would have to win the Ohio Valley Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. Murray State and Morehead State are the favorites in the conference. All other postseason tournaments are out for the Panthers.

Illinois (13-8, 5-3 Big Ten)

Illinois coach Bruce Weber can't help but feel like he is living the movie "Groundhog Day" with his team this season. Every game seems like the same to Weber.

When the illini have needed a big shot, they have struggled to find a go-to player. Their leadership has been a question mark all season. Illinois' big men have been inconsistent. The freshmen have been sensational at times, but they're still freshmen who make freshmen mistakes.

Weber has attempted nearly everything he has ever learned in coaching to spark his team. Little of it has worked.

Almost halfway through the Big Ten season, time is running out for Illinois to find itself. Illinois' NCAA Tournament résumé is lacking. Losses to Bradley, Georgia and Utah don't look good. The Illini have quality wins over Clemson and Vanderbilt when they were ranked. Their five other losses include three to ranked opponents -- Gonzaga, Michigan State and Purdue -- along with Missouri and Northwestern.

Illinois may just be a year away. With three highly-touted recruits (Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard, Crandall Head) coming in and nearly everyone back from this season's team, the 2010-2011 Illini have the makings of a special one.

Postseason hopes: Illinois could still be an NCAA Tournament team. The Illini likely need at least six more conference wins and a good showing in the Big Ten tournament. Seven of their past eight games are against the top half of the conference. If they continue to falter, the NIT will be their destination.

Illinois-Chicago (5-14, 1-8 Horizon League)

Illinois-Chicago coach Jimmy Collins was prepared for some adjustments this season after last year's ended with the Flames graduating Josh Mayo, their star, and Scott VanderMeer, the leading rebounder. Collins wasn't ready for what would unfold over the following months, though.

Collins had planned on having Tori Boyd, Rob Eppinger, Demarkus Isom-Jones, Jovan Ignjatovic and Jelani Poston this season, but none of them returned to the program for a variety of reasons. Collins also had to suspend returning starter Spencer Stewart for five games to start the season for an undisclosed reason.

Collins was left with Robo Kreps, the Flames' second-leading scorer, a few other contributors from last season and countless newcomers. Kreps has had his moments -- he put up 31 points against Detroit -- but defenses have keyed on him and put him into a shooting slump. Others have shown promise, but the Flames have struggled overall. They are currently on their second six-game losing streak of the season and on the verge of their worst season under Collins.

Postseason hopes: Illinois-Chicago has to win the Horizon League Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Flames are in last place in the conference. No other postseason tournament is possible.

[+] EnlargeOsiris Eldridge
AP Photo/Tom GannamLike his Illinois State team, Osiris Eldridge has had an inconsistent season.

Illinois State (14-7, 5-5 Missouri Valley)

Like nearly every team in the state, Illinois State has had its ups and downs. The Redbirds opened the season with seven consecutive wins. There weren't anything earth-shattering victories in the bunch, but they were 7-0. They then lost to Niagara and Ohio and have since been a slightly above-average team.

The Redbirds have pretty much gone the way of their star player, Osiris Eldridge. He has had big nights like when he put up 28 points against St. Bonaventure or when he scored 26 against Wichita State. With opponents game-planning around him, he has also had off nights. He was 5 for 18 from the field against Niagara and scored nine points against Ohio.

Postseason hopes: Illinois State would have to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Redbirds are in a four-way tie for fourth place. The NIT is a possibility with a strong conference finish.

Loyola (12-7, 3-6 Horizon League)

Loyola wasn't expected to do much this season. The Ramblers graduated four of their top five players, including J.R. Blount and Justin Cerasoli, who as a backcourt tandem accounted for 25.3 points a game last season.

Loyola didn't listen to its critics, though.

The Ramblers were one of the major in-state stories of the first half of the season, building a 12-2 record through Dec. 31. Instead of relying on two big-time players like Blount and Cerasoli, they used contributions from nearly everyone. Loyola has seven players average between 5.5 points and a team-best 11.9 points.

Since 2010 arrived, Loyola has taken a dip. It has lost five of its past six games and is six games behind Butler in the Horizon League.

Postseason hopes: Loyola will have to win the Horizon League tournament to reach the NCAAs. The Ramblers are in eighth place in the conference. The only way another postseason tournament would be a possibility is if the Ramblers got over .500 in conference.

Northern Illinois (8-10, 4-2 Mid-American)

Northern Illinois coach Ricardo Patton set up his team's schedule to expose its weaknesses early on against tougher opponents.

Mission accomplished.

Without star Xavier Silas, a transfer from Colorado, because of an injury for most of the Huskies' difficult early stretch, they took their lumps, losing to quality opponents in Bradley, Illinois, Minnesota, Northern Iowa, Northwestern and Temple. With the Temple loss on Dec. 30, Northern Illinois fell to 2-8.

Since then, the Huskies have been a different team. Playing against competition more to their level, they've gone 6-2 in 2010 and have put themselves in the running for the MAC title. Silas' return has also been a key as he's averaged a conference-best 23 points per game through six MAC games.

Postseason hopes: Without any quality non-conference wins, Northern Illinois will still need to win the MAC tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies, who are in second place, could reach another postseason tournament by finishing near the top of the conference.

Northwestern (14-5, 3-4 Big Ten)

Heading into the year, all the talk around Evanston was this could finally be the season the Wildcats broke their history-long NCAA Tournament drought. The pieces were certainly in place. They returned their star player in Kevin Coble, the Wildcats' leading scorer and rebounder, three-year starting point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson and rising sophomore John Shurna. They also had a number of keys reserves back and were bringing in highly-touted freshman Drew Crawford.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's John Shurna is averaging 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.

And then one afternoon in early November all those hopes seemed to disappear. Coble fractured his left foot in practice, requiring season-ending surgery. Just like that, many assumed Northwestern's season was over before it even started.

The Wildcats had different ideas, though. Northwestern defied the odds and won 10 of their 11 non-conference games. Those victories included Iowa State, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Stanford, and it was the first time since the 1930-31 season that Northwestern was 10-1.

Since then, the Wildcats have hit a few bumps in the Big Ten. They have gone 3-5 in the conference with their losses being to Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State on the road and Michigan State and Wisconsin at Welsh-Ryan Arena. None of their defeats are NCAA Tournament killers, but the two home ones could hurt. They have a quality win over Purdue which should help.

Postseason hopes: Northwestern still faces an uphill battle to punch that NCAA ticket. It likely needs seven more Big Ten wins to get there. The one upside is the Wildcats do face an easier road during the second half of their conference schedule.

They host Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State, and they travel to Indiana, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin. The Big Ten Tournament could be a key, too. Last season, Penn State won 10 Big Ten games, but a poor showing at the conference tournament kept it out of the NCAAs.

Southern Illinois (12-7, 4-5 Missouri Valley)

Ever since coach Rich Herrin led Southern Illinois to the NCAA Tournament during the 1992-93 season, expectations have been placed at a different level in Carbondale.

Herrin added two more NCAA Tournament berths to the program before handing it over to Bruce Weber. In his stay, Weber led the Salukis to two NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 run in 2003. Matt Painter spent one season as head coach at SIU and also reached the NCAA Tournament. Finally, Chris Lowery, the current coach, took over in 2004 and immediately led the Salukis to three NCAA Tournaments, including another Sweet 16 in 2007.

Lately, the Salukis have stopped meeting those expectations. In the past three seasons, Southern Illinois has gone 43-40 overall and 23-22 in the Missouri Valley. This likely will be the third consecutive season that it doesn't reach the NCAA Tournament. In comparison, Lowery's teams went 78-26 and 42-12 with three NCAA Tournament berths in his first three seasons.

This year's team has shown flashes of its ability at times. The backcourt trio of Tony Freeman, a transfer from Iowa, Kevin Dillard and Justin Bocot all have the capability of going off, but rarely have done so in unison.

Six-foot-8 sophomore Anthony Booker has put together a few double-doubles. Carlton Fay has come on lately with four consecutive double-digit scoring games. Centers Nick Evans and Gene Teague have also displayed potential.

If Lowery doesn't move on after the season -- DePaul could be a possible destination -- some Southern Illinois fans also want him fired -- next season could be the return of the program. It returns everyone except Freeman and adds Wisconsin-transfer Diamond Taylor, who should make an immediate impact.

Postseason hopes: Southern Illinois needs to win the Missouri Valley tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. The Salukis are tied for seventh in the conference.

Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (3-17)

Southern Illinois-Edwardsville has gone through the struggles that all first-year Division I programs face. The Cougars shocked Drake on the road and have been competitive throughout the season. Sophomore Mark Yelovich, a 6-6 forward, should be the one to watch in the years to come. He is averaging a team-best 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds this season. The key for the program will be able to bring in players who can compete right away. Scouts Inc. has given incoming recruit Michael Messer, a 6-5 guard, an 85 grade.

Postseason hopes: There are none for the Cougars. They don't belong to a conference and won't be considered for any of the postseason tournaments.

Western Illinois (8-11, 2-7 Summit)

Western Illinois suffered through the toughest decade in the state. The Leathernecks haven't had a winning season since they finished 16-12 in the 1998-99 season.

That doesn't appear as if it will change this season, but Western Illinois appears to be headed in the right direction behind the play of sophomore guard Ceola Clark.

Clark, who played at Warren High School in Gurnee, once was part of an AAU backcourt that included Illinois point guard Jeff Jordan and Northwestern point guard Michael Thompson. Like Jordan and Thompson, Clark has been doing just fine in college.

After taking a medical redshirt season his first year, Clark has shown over the past two seasons why he was one of Illinois' most electrifying guards coming out of high school. Clark is averaging 13.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season. He is also tied for fifth in the country with 2.9 steals. If Western Illinois can put a few pieces around him in the next two seasons, that losing streak might just end.

Postseason hopes: Western Illinois would have to win the Summit League tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. Only the top eight teams in the conference make the conference tournament. The Leathernecks are tied for eighth place with Centenary. No other postseason tournament is a possibility for Western Illinois.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.

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