NIT gives Illinois chance to build toward next year

The Illinois men’s basketball team had its name called on Selection Sunday, but not for the tournament Illini fans were hoping for.

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The Illini’s 19 wins weren’t enough to place them in the NCAA tournament. Illinois will instead have to settle for an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament, whose field was also announced Sunday.

No. 2-seeded Illinois will head on the road to face No. 7-seeded Boston, the regular season champions of the Patriot League, in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday.

No team’s goal is to make the NIT, but Illinois still has something to play for.

Illinois last made the NIT in 2010 when the Demetri McCamey-led Illini were a No. 1 seed. That team lost to Dayton in the third round and never really appeared to take the tournament seriously. This year’s team is different.

As Illinois head coach John Groce said Saturday, playing hard every game is part of his team’s DNA. Their grind-it-out mentality isn’t going to change in the NIT.

Illinois deserves a chance to extend its season after coming up short in an upset bid against Michigan. Illinois looked like an NCAA Tournament team this weekend and they’ll have the chance to prove it in the NIT.

The NIT is filled with a plethora of teams that are talented enough to be in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 1 seeds of Southern Methodist, St. John’s, Minnesota and Florida State aren’t to be taken lightly. Other big names such as Missouri, Georgetown and Clemson will also be in the NIT field.

Illinois has what it takes to bring home an NIT title at the great Madison Square Garden come April 3. Illinois’ stifling, physical defense is proven and will play well against any team in the NIT field. The Illini’s 15th ranked defensive efficiency is the best of any team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament with the exception of SMU.

Illinois’ path to an NIT Championship won’t be easy. Boston doesn’t pose much of a threat, but don’t forget Illinois can’t host a home game because of the renovations to State Farm Center. 

If the Illini move past the Terriers, Illinois will already have to face a major conference opponent in Clemson. The Tigers lost by a point to Duke last time out and boast the 20th best defensive efficiency in the nation. Clemson arguably is a bigger challenge than St. John’s, the No. 1 seed in Illinois’ region.

Illinois will go as far in the NIT as it wants to. If the effort, intensity, and passion are still there from the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois has enough talent to get past any team in the NIT field. Illinois has already beaten two NIT teams this season, Minnesota and Missouri, who are one and two seeds, respectively.

Winning the NIT Championship wouldn’t be something worthy of raising a banner at State Farm Center, but the victory would send a message to the NCAA Tournament committee that Illinois belonged in the field of 68. The NIT also gives Illinois the opportunity to extend its season and start thinking about next year.

Groce has the opportunity to learn more about next year’s team with Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey being the only departures from this year’s squad. Tracy Abrams will have the opportunity to prove that his play in the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t a fluke. Rayvonte Rice has the opportunity to snap back into his nonconference form. Nnanna Egwu will have the opportunity to showcase his sensational defense on a national stage. The extra minutes for freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill will be invaluable.

This NIT berth means something to Illinois, even if it’s not the tournament everyone was hoping for.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at wonsovr2@dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.