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Illini’s postseason hopes rest with little-known CBI tourney

Illinois' John Groce is held back by assistant coach DustFord during Illinois' NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State Champaign

Illinois' John Groce is held back by assistant coach Dustin Ford during Illinois' NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Robin Scholz) ORG XMIT: ILRS111

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Updated: March 27, 2014 6:52AM

March Sadness.

If there’s a catchphrase likely to fit our college basketball scene like a glove next month, that would have to be it.

Barring a miraculous conference tournament run by one of the teams in our coverage area — as if that’s going to happen — the NCAA Tournament will go on with nary a thought for Northwestern, DePaul, Notre Dame, etc.

Our neck of the woods: the college game’s dark side of the moon.

And yet — oh, baby — there’s a chance, and a real one, that Illinois’ season won’t end as soon as the Illini are bounced from the Big Ten tourney.

A week ago, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas strongly indicated to the Sun-Times that the Illini will compete in the postseason CBI tournament if they’re extended an invitation in March.

“Unless there was some unforeseen circumstance, which I don’t see at this point, we would,” Thomas said.

We know what you’re thinking: The C-B-who?

The College Basketball Invitational. If you don’t remember where you were when Santa Clara won at George Mason to claim the 2013 CBI title, don’t beat yourself up. We don’t remember it ourselves. Chances are, no one in Champaign does, either.

If the Illini — 15-12 overall and a measly 4-10 in Big Ten action — are willing to reach into the abyss that is a largely (completely?) overlooked tourney for their “one shining moment,” so what? Good for them.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the CBI called Thomas’ words a “compliment” to the tournament and indicated that Illinois still has a realistic shot at an invite.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a drawback,” a very friendly man named Ray Cella said of the team’s tied-for-last-place conference record. “It’s obviously going to depend on the league, but we’re talking about the Big Ten here.”

Clearly, the Illini need to win more games — starting with Wednesday night’s home date against Nebraska — to get into the CBI, their only realistic hope for postseason basketball. The NCAA tourney could not be more out of the picture. The NIT seems to be all but out of reach, too, given the records of the teams in that event’s recent fields.

The CBI, only six years old, has much less of a track record. Cella told the Sun-Times that, generally speaking, the CBI considers teams that are at least .500 overall with RPI rankings in the top 200 nationally.

Also, the CBI “look[s] for teams that want to continue playing basketball,” Cella said. Many teams with older rosters have passed on CBI invitations, with coaches seeing little to gain for their programs. Coaches with young teams — the Illini have five freshmen in their rotation — often are inclined to seize any opportunity to keep playing, which is how Thomas described John Groce’s mind-set.

With a victory over Nebraska, the Illini can guarantee they’ll finish with no worse than a .500 record. That certainly might not be enough, but a fifth conference ‘W’ would at least bring postseason basketball into focus as an attainable goal for Groce’s team, which has an RPI of 85.

It doesn’t help Illinois’ cause that it can’t host postseason games because of renovations scheduled to begin at State Farm Center on March 6. But the stature of the Illini program could offset that.

“Illinois is one of the name-brand programs,” Cella said. “There’s no question about that.”

Only one Big Ten school (Purdue in 2013) has participated in the CBI, but the list of big-name programs that have done so is fairly long. It includes Texas, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Washington — not bad.

And there’s one other thing. Upon further investigation, it appears the aforementioned Santa Clara victory over George Mason actually came in Game 3 of a three-game series. What a wacky way for a college tournament to conclude.

So mark it down: Illinois is more likely to win a finals series in 2014 than the Bulls.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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