By Jim O’Connell
Imagine waiting a week to hear whether or not you have done enough to earn the biggest of your dreams.
That’s what Illinois State faces.
The Redbirds, a true definition of a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, lost to No. 21 Wichita State in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Tournament on Sunday.
Whether or not they are in the field of 68 won’t be announced until next Sunday. Seven agonizing days listening to people give their opinion on whether or not they are in.
“I definitely think we should be in,” senior guard Tony Wills told the Normal (Illinois) Pentagraph. “I think we have some big wins. I think this team is really special. It’s the best team I’ve ever been on and I don’t want to be done playing.”
Big wins are one thing the Redbirds are missing on the tournament resume. They split the season series with Wichita State, and that’s their lone quality win, one that will impress the selection committee, anyway.
“We just have to pray and have faith that we get in,” senior forward Deontae Hawkins said. “We had an outstanding season. We didn’t get the automatic bid that we wanted, but we played some great basketball this year.”
The Missouri Valley Conference was down this season from the usual campaign where it would have four, even five quality teams. This season it was Wichita State and Illinois State by themselves.
“I mean, we lost one game in conference, same as them,” senior guard Keyshawn Evans said of the Shockers. “Besides the two Wichita games, I can’t remember the last time we lost a game. We’ve only lost to them since I don’t know when. That would probably be my argument.”
The Redbirds (27-6), who came into the title game on an eight-game winning streak and with an RPI in the 30s, have to hope the committee agrees with that assessment.
The Big Ten dominated Sunday’s schedule and two bubble teams that needed wins got them.
Iowa (18-13, 10-8) started the conference season 3-5 but turned things around, a trend that continued with a 90-79 victory over Penn State. It would do the Hawkeyes well to definitely win one, maybe even a second game in the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan (20-11, 10-8) was in much better shape than Iowa, but the Wolverines added a 93-57 mashing of Nebraska to close the season.
Minnesota seemed likely to make the tournament field, but a win over Wisconsin would have been a great way to end the regular season. The Gophers fell 66-49.
The Gophers rebounded from an eight-win season in 2015-16 to where they didn’t have to worry about being on the bubble.
“We will get excited about where we sit right now because that’s in a great spot,” coach Richard Pitino said.
The other Big Ten team that lost in a bubble-breaking situation was Northwestern, which fell 69-65 to No. 16 Purdue. The Wildcats (21-10, 10-8) have become a fan favorite as they wait for the call to their first ever NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t take anything for granted, we don’t feel our ticket is punched until we see it on Sunday,” guard Bryant McIntosh said.
Bubble talk can take a rest Monday when none of the power conferences are playing. Things will heat up again quickly Tuesday when the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament gets underway.