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updated: 3/8/2011 7:05 AM

March sadness: Why so few Illinois teams in NCAA Tournament?

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  • Demetri McCamey and the Illini are scrambling to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

      Demetri McCamey and the Illini are scrambling to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
    Associated Press

  • Meanwhile, Northwestern and Drew Crawford may be the state's lone entry to the NIT.

      Meanwhile, Northwestern and Drew Crawford may be the state's lone entry to the NIT.
    Associated Press

  • DePaul hired head coach Oliver Purnell a year ago to rebuild its men's basketball program, which has finished last in the Big East for three straight seasons.

      DePaul hired head coach Oliver Purnell a year ago to rebuild its men's basketball program, which has finished last in the Big East for three straight seasons.
    Associated Press

  • Tough times on the hardcourt

    Graphic: Tough times on the hardcourt

 

In the good old years, our state's college basketball teams treated Selection Sunday as a confirmation instead of a conundrum.

From 1980 through 2007 -- with 1999 serving as the rule-proving exception -- Division I schools in Illinois claimed at least two spots in every NCAA Tournament field.

Illinois and DePaul were nationally known March Madness staples. Illinois State and Southern Illinois enjoyed extended NCAA runs.

Bradley, Northern Illinois, UIC and Eastern Illinois could each be counted on to qualify for the Tournament once or twice per decade.

But these days, we're left to wonder: Why don't our men's teams in the state measure up?

Not to relive the old days again, but the state of Illinois was represented in the NCAA field every year except one from 1976 to 2007.

If Bruce Weber's Illinois squad doesn't pop up on the TV screen at 5 p.m. Sunday when CBS reveals this year's 68-team bracket, then the Land of Lincoln will be shut out for the third time in the past four years.

Thank goodness most professional and amateur prognosticators at BracketProject.50webs.com consider the Fighting Illini to be a 9 or 10 seed this year.

Not what people expected when the season began (Illinois ranked No. 13 nationally in the first Associated Press poll), but better than the alternative.

"We've made some strides," Weber said Saturday after Illinois wrapped up its regular season with a 24-point win over Indiana.

"Now, if we want to do something special, we've got to go to the Big Ten tournament and continue to play at this level and see if we can really make sure we ice an NCAA bid."

Just as Illinois is our state's only school with a realistic chance at an NCAA bid, Northwestern is the only one with a shot at making the 32-team NIT field.

The other end of the spectrum, alas, is much more populated.

DePaul -- in proven rebuilder Oliver Purnell's first year at the helm -- just wrapped up its third consecutive 16th-place finish in the 16-team Big East. UIC, another program with a first-year coach, wound up last in the Horizon League.

Southern Illinois, Bradley and Illinois State occupied the bottom three spots in the Missouri Valley Conference -- the first time that occurred in the 30 seasons they've been together in the MVC.

Bradley coach Jim Les paid for his team's slippage by getting a pink slip Sunday. SIU's Chris Lowery, who earned the state's most recent NCAA Tournament win during their Sweet 16 ride in 2007, owns too big of a contract to suffer the same fate.

Looking for one more way to explain how far our colleges have fallen?

The nation's 345 Division I basketball-playing schools are spread among 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Illinois' 13 Division I teams own a collective winning percentage of .350, which ranks behind all states except the noted basketball hotbeds of Wyoming (.333) and New Hampshire (.293).

In large part, Illinois' schools are slumping because they're struggling to keep top prospects inside the borders.

The McDonald's All-American game comes to United Center on March 30. Long known as the premier collection of prep talent, Chicago high school seniors Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear represent Illinois in this year's game.

Neither gave serious consideration to any Illinois schools. Davis will attend Kentucky next year while Blackshear signed with Louisville, which maintained a long-running trend.

Over the past 10 years, Illinois produced 14 McDonald's All-Americans that didn't go straight to the pros. Only Illini-bound Dee Brown and Jereme Richmond stayed in-state.

Contrast that to the stretch from the McDonald's game's origin in 1978 to 2001: Illinois and DePaul combined to land 19 of our state's 41 McDonald's All-Americans that went on to play in college.

Most of our state's schools can't attract All-Americans, but that doesn't mean they can't shine with local talent.

Northwestern improved its fortunes once it began focusing its recruiting on the Chicago area.

Rogers Park's Michael Thompson, Glen Ellyn's John Shurna and Naperville's Drew Crawford have been the Wildcats' backbone the past two years.

Northwestern hopes to continue that trend with its next recruiting class, which features Chicago University High forward Michael Turner and Benet Academy guard David Sobolewski.

The latter runs the point for the nation's No. 7-ranked team, according to USA Today. The Redwings face East Aurora (and Connecticut-bound star Ryan Boatright) tonight in IHSA Class 4A sectional play.

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