For Fighting Illini, it's another unshakeable bout of March sadness
This time of year, it’s not unusual to see a great escape build into something greater.
One thinks of Tyus Edney’s 4-second dash down the floor to lead UCLA to a buzzer-beating Second Round win over Missouri in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, which eventually snowballed into a national championship for the Bruins.
Or Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater to lift Michigan past Houston in the Second Round of the 2018 Tournament. Inches from elimination, the Wolverines instead rolled all the way to the national championship game.
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For the most optimistic of Illinois fans, the hope was a similar storyline might play out after the Fighting Illini escaped a First Round game against Chattanooga they should have lost 95 times out of 100. Maybe the Illini just needed to work out the nerves after last year’s Tournament disappointment.
Reality turned out to be far harsher.
Illinois basketball and March Madness are a match made in, well, not heaven. For the second straight season, the Illini are out in the Second Round despite having a better seed than their opponent.
This time it was 5th-seeded Houston, which completely snuffed out Illinois’ offense in a 68-53 win.
Most of that failure is on Brad Underwood and his team. Underwood and the Illini haven’t displayed any trace of a clutch gene the past 2 Tournaments.
But at least some of it can be tied to extraordinarily poor luck.
The bad luck of the draw
Last year, Illinois AD Josh Whitman penned an open letter to Illini fans when the Big Ten awarded Michigan the regular-season conference title despite the Wolverines playing 3 fewer games.
Whitman’s newest grievance should be the with NCAA Tournament selection committee, because for the second straight year his team was absolutely hosed. Indirectly, that is.
Illinois earned its seeds in the past 2 NCAA Tournaments. That’s indisputable. But in both years, the most grossly under-seeded teams in the entire field awaited the Illini in the Second Round.
Last year, the Illini faced 8th-seeded Loyola Chicago. A matchup like that is always a trap, of course. Loyola’s roster was almost entirely comprised of guys “not good enough” to be recruited by Illinois. So the Ramblers were playing with a far larger chip on their shoulders than a typical 8-seed.
More importantly, Loyola was far better than a typical 8-seed.
Analyst Ken Pomeroy had the Ramblers as the 10th-best team in the country last year. Fellow numbers guy Bart Torvik rated the Ramblers 13th.
Doing the math, Loyola should have been a 3- or 4-seed by those estimates. The top-seeded Illini deserved another round to get their sea legs under them before running into a team that strong.
The same thing happened this year.
Pomeroy and Torvik both have Houston as the No. 2 team in the country behind Gonzaga. But the Cougars aren’t a top-2 seed in their own region. Or even a top-4 seed. You don’t find another 5th seed in either of their rating indexes until coming across Saint Mary’s at No. 16 overall.
So last year Loyola was about 20 spots better than where an 8-seed should be ranked, and this year Houston is about 15 spots better.
There’s not much reason to go tinfoil hat and suggest the NCAA has some sort of axe to grind with Underwood or Illinois. Even programs under actual heavy NCAA investigative scrutiny like LSU and Kansas haven’t gotten hosed like this.
Whitman is well within his rights to say “Hey fellas, can you throw us a friggin’ bone here?”
The only problem is there’s no telling how much longer it will be before Illinois has a team deserving of that consideration.
What’s next for Illinois?
The saddest part of the equation for Illinois fans is that the Illini were equipped for their first Sweet 16 and/or Final Four runs since 2005 these past 2 seasons. That’s quite unlikely to be the case next year.
Kofi Cockburn is surely gone. Veteran leaders Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are definitely gone, as is 3-point specialist Alfonso Plummer.
Plummer is proof that Underwood can plug leaks via the transfer portal, but players like Cockburn are not found there. This team will need to find a new offensive and defensive identity.
Perhaps that identity can be built around Andre Curbelo, but the streaky point guard is a sixth man for a reason. Asking him to play in a more responsible manner may inhibit what he does best.
Maybe, too, Underwood’s trust in freshmen RJ Melendez and Luke Goode in Sunday’s game will pay some dividends a year from now.
Illinois probably isn’t going to stink next year, but it figures to be somewhere between a 6-to-11 seed if it makes the Tournament.
But that might not be such a bad thing for the Illini. They’ll get an easier Second Round opponent.