By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Hey, it might be the greatest sporting event on Earth, but, really, who needs the NCAA Tournament?
Not us, here in the Land of Lincoln, apparently. Or even them, over there in the Hoosier State. At least, that’s certainly the way it looks right now.
Because, despite being arguably the two American states most closely associated the sport of basketball, it’s looking less likely by the day that any school from Illinois or Indiana is going to end up qualifying for next month’s NCAA Tourney.
Now, that’s madness.
Over in our neighboring state where the likes of Larry Bird, Brad Stevens and Bob Knight built their legends thanks to the month of March, SI.com’s Seth Davis asked last week, “An NCAA Tournament without a team from Indiana? Is that even legal?”
It is. And, actually, the entire Hoosier State was shut out from the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2005, although prior to then it had at least one team qualify every season since 1972. Coincidentally, Illinois also failed to see any of its programs punch a ticket to the Big Dance that year, making ’72 the last time that both the Hoosier State and the Land of Lincoln were shut out in the same season.
But now 42 years later, it looks like history could repeat itself.
Of the 10 Division I basketball programs in Indiana, only Indiana State is enjoying what could be considered a truly strong season with its 21-6 overall record and its current second-place position in the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
Trouble is for the Sycamores, the first-place team in the MVC is Wichita State, which also happens to be the lone unbeaten team left in the country. Considering that Indiana State has only one win over a Top 50 RPI team, it’s a long shot to earn an at-large bid and probably an even bigger long shot to upend the Shockers in the MVC Tourney.
The rest of Indiana’s D-I programs, meanwhile, are experiencing poor-to-mediocre seasons, with Ball State (4-20), Butler (12-14), Indiana (14-11), IPFW (19-9), IUPUI (6-22), Notre Dame (14-13), Purdue (15-11) and Valparaiso (16-12) combining for a record of 132-135 that makes for a winning percentage of only .494.
But, really, that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Illinois. Of our 12 D-I basketball programs, only two – Illinois and Illinois State, both 15-12 – even had a winning record as of Friday. The rest of state looks like this: UIC (5-22), Chicago State (10-15), DePaul (10-17), Bradley (11-16), Eastern Illinois (9-18), Loyola (9-18), Northern Illinois (12-13), Northwestern (12-15), Southern Illinois (11-17), Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (11-17) and Western Illinois (9-17).
All of that adds up to a 139-209 record and a staggeringly poor winning percentage of .399.
Talk about a state of disrepair.
Now, at least a few schools from Illinois and Indiana are likely to qualify for the NIT or CBI Tournaments and continue playing basketball into March. But here’s an idea: If no teams from either state makes the NCAA Tourney, what do you say that Illinois and Indiana just shun the lesser postseason tourneys and create one of their own?
With 22 programs between the two states, a 20-team tournament could be created with eight top seeds in two regionals along with a pair of play-in games to earn the No. 8 seed (two schools would have to be left out (sorry, Ball State and UIC). Or, perhaps, instead a 16-team bracket could be set up with eight Illinois teams in one regional and eight Indiana teams in another with the two victors competing for the right to play in a true “state” championship game.
I wouldn’t mind seeing, say, Illinois and Notre Dame square off in a postseason tilt, or watching Northwestern take on Butler, DePaul face Indiana or Illinois State butt heads with Purdue.
Now, of course, such an Indiana-Illinois tourney isn’t going to happen. But as we trudge our way through the final stretches of this difficult basketball season here in the heartland, an imaginary tournament is more fun to think about than the alternative.