Land of Lincoln not linking to NCAA tournament

Houston? Final Four? Illinois is not even tracking for Dayton's First Four.

Houston? Final Four? Illinois is not even tracking for Dayton’s First Four.

Everyone knows about Illinois’ seemingly endless fiscal crisis.

But how about the physical crisis?

Barring a miracle run in a conference tournament, Illinois will have no teams involved when the NCAA captivates the nation.

Not as important as the overtime deadlock between Gov. Rauner and the Democrats, by any means. But still extremely maddening.

None. Nada. Zilch. Nil. For the. . . third straight year.

This is shaping up as the sixth time in nine years that Illinois has failed to land an invite to the NCAA tournament. In the 32 years before that, the Land of Lincoln missed exactly once. This would be the first time since 1978-80 that the state of Illinois has been shut out of three straight NCAA tournaments.

This stuff happens. Even hallowed Indiana failed to land a team in the Big Dance in 2014, for only the second time since 1973. But the Hoosier State–which has regular contenders in IU, Purdue and Notre Dame, not to mention Butler–doesn’t stay down long.

Is Illinois’ miserysome kind of cruel early-April-Fool’s joke? With all the basketball players this state produces? Nope. This is not a joking matter.

What’s even more frustrating is that there will be plenty of Illinois lads competing. They’ll just be playing for other teams.

If you just took out-of-state Wildcats, you’d have a great backcrout: Rock-solid Villanova freshman Jalen Brunson and Kentucky sophomore Tyler Ulis. Put Wichita State’s Fred Van Vleet, Indiana’s Max Bielfeldt and Xavier’s James Farr on the floor on them—and you’d have a team that could play for a long time. And those are just a few names that come to mind.

Last year, 59 players from Illinois were on NCAA tournament rosters. And many were big-timers, including key contributors on each of the Final Four teams—Ulis, Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) and Gavin Schilling, (Michigan State).

All of this talent can hardly be expected to remain instate. But you’d think Illinois schools could corral enough players to land one or two teams in the NCAA tournament.

Unless someone catches lighting in a conference tournament bottle, though, it’s not going to happen.

Illinois State, which is battling for second place in the Missouri Valley, shapes up as the best conference-tournament. But that’s a longshot. And the rest of the schools are pretty much 94-foot prayers.

There are faint glimmers of hope. Under Chris Collins, Northwestern is dropping hints that it might end its amazing never-been-to-the-Big-Dance drought sooner than later. Dave “Grover Cleveland” Leitao, back for a second stint at DePaul, is capable if un-glamourous. And if the Illini can stay healthy and avoid legal scrapes, they’ll have a good chance to play in the NCAA tournament next year.

But still. . . table scraps for the hog-butcher of the world?

Why is the state struggling so mightily?

The finger-pointing, of course, starts with Illinois, which is on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in nine years.

But nobody else has picked up the slack. The state’s last NCAA team outside of Champaign was Southern Illinois in 2007.

What’s the problem?

Round up the usual suspects. John Groce and his predecessor, Bruce Weber, have been unable to recruit and coach up the kind of talent that made Illinois an NCAA tournament perennial for 25 years. From 1983 to 2007, the Illini missed the NCAA tournament only four times. That’s 21 for 25 followed by 3 for 9, if you’re keeping score at home.

Greasing the skids, while Illinois was slipping, other programs around the Big Ten were muscling up. There are fewer pushovers and more programs that are doing a good job of reaching their potential. In other words, while Illinois was getting worse, a lot of other schools were getting better.

No. 2 on the what’s-wrong-with-this program list is DePaul, which played in 12 NCAA tournaments from 1976 to 1992, but only two since then.

Combine the lack of the right arena with the usual coaching/recruiting issues and you have a DePaul program with an ongoing identity crisis. WGN no longer has a Superstation monopoly. Get over it.

The rest of the schools? Southern Illinois has had some decent moments. But it’s pretty much messy everywhere you look in the Land of Lincoln.

It’s understandable that elite players have been leaving the state for a long time. Okafor, Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and so many others have done the right thing for their careers, playing for schools where they could showcase their talents and improve their games and attractiveness to the NBA.

It’s also very sad for Illinois basketball. With so much talent here, and so many fans and alumni and television sets, you’d think Illinois would have multiple programs that were enjoying basketball success.

You’d be wrong. On the bright side, when people in Illinois fill out their brackets, they won’t face the dilemma of wanting teams they root for to go deep vs. trying to win their tournament pool.

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould

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