Illini, Gophers head to NIT after missing Big Dance

Illini, Gophers head to NIT after missing Big Dance
March 16, 2014, 10:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

It's not the Big Dance, but at least it's a dance.

That's how the Illini and Gophers will have to look at things after accepting invites to the NIT on Sunday.

The NCAA tournament Selection Show came and went without either team's name being called, leading that other postseason tournament to pick up the next two Big Ten teams in line for postseason berths.

The Illini head to the NIT after losing in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan on Friday. The Illini's NCAA tournament resume wasn't very strong, but a big win or two in the conference tourney might have been enough to vault them into contention. Things started off well this season, with a non-conference season highlighted with a big neutral-court win over Missouri, and the Illini actually cracked the top 25 after two wins to start conference play. But an upset loss at Northwestern sucked all the wind out the orange-and-blue sails, the second defeat in a string of eight straight. The Illini turned on the defense late in the season, closing the regular season winners of four of five. But the push was too late.

"We're excited," head coach John Groce said Sunday. "As I told the guys, there's 350-plus basketball teams, only 140 of them get to participate in postseason.

"We played really well here late in the year, and I think certainly our seed was a reflection of that. Five or six weeks ago, I think a lot of people, maybe even a handful in this group, might have written us off, and for our guys to continue to fight and battle through like they did and grind it out and put themselves in a position like they were in today, we're certainly proud of the way they responded. So we're excited about the opportunity. I think our guys are, too."

[MORE: First impressions: Big Ten lands six teams in NCAA tournament]

Illinois, a two-seed, plays Boston University in the first round of the NIT. Interestingly, due to renovations at the State Farm Center in Champaign, the Illini will be the only higher seed playing on the road.

Minnesota received a higher seed than the Illini, picking up one of the four No. 1 seeds. The Gophers will face off with High Point in their first-round game. Richard Pitino had his team squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble in his first year in the Twin Cities, but the Gophers couldn't make the field of 68. Minnesota's season featured too many wins against the likes of Penn State and not enough wins against the country's top talent. The Gophers did win five games against teams that ended up in the tournament, but it's the NIT for them.

Somewhat surprisingly, Indiana was left out of the NIT field. The Hoosiers also closed their season strong and figured to be on the NCAA tournament bubble at the start of the Big Ten Tournament. A first-round exit against Illinois might have been the difference between Indiana making the NIT and not. Indiana opted to end its season rather than accept an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational, another lower-level postseason tournament. Hoosiers athletics director Fred Glass told the Indianapolis Star on Sunday: "We're Indiana. We don't play in the CBI."