Illinois State coach Dan Muller had himself prepared for Selection Sunday heartbreak. He says he's used to managing his emotions when it comes to something he cannot control.
His players were a different story.
After an agonizing week of waiting in which the Redbirds (27-6, 17-1) watched championship week closely — knowing different outcomes could push them on the right or wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble — the inescapable heartbreak set in after their name was not one of the 68 teams called for 2017's Big Dance. On most national bracketology boards, they were the first team out. And a No. 1 seed in the NIT is their consolation postseason fate. Other bubble teams like Syracuse, Illinois and Georgia all suffered a similar fate.
"My team is crushed," Muller said of his team's devastation. Illinois State players had a quick shootaround, then watched the selection show as a team, closed off to the public. Cameras were there just in case an at-large bid happened. "I feel terrible for them, especially my seniors. We feel we should be in but we aren't. It's tough to take but we'll have to gather ourselves and get ready for the NIT.
Muller, frustrated with the criticism that his team did not schedule hard enough as a mid-major, added: "We ask dozens of schools to play us every year and they won't. Don't talk to me about scheduling."
Ironically, this week Muller turned to King Rice, the head coach of last year's biggest NCAA tournament snub — Monmouth — for advice on how to prepare his players. Rice, among other mentors for Muller, helped the fifth-year coach construct a "cautiously optimistic" approach for his veteran-laden team during an anxiety-ridden week.
Muller remembers hearing Illinois State's name called on Selection Sunday when he was a player in 1998, the last time the Redbirds reached the NCAA tournament. That time the program knew it would be dancing, having won the Missouri Valley's auto bid. This year, despite finishing as co-MVC champions with Wichita State in the regular season, a 20-point loss in the MVC tournament final against the red-hot Shockers meant the Redbirds' résumé would be examined all week long with their postseason fate fully out of their control.
The NCAA selection committee made it clear Illinois State's profile was fully examined. But ultimately it lacked what the committee needed much more of: Top 50 Ratings Percentage Index wins. The Redbirds had just one top-50 win, against the Shockers, to go with two résumé-staining losses to Tulsa and Murray State. Illinois State likely paid the cost of the committee veering away from placing a high value on a team's overall RPI. Last season, for instance, Syracuse squeaked into the field with a worst-ever 72 RPI. The Redbirds' Selection Sunday RPI of 33 is one of the 10 best RPIs to be snubbed from the NCAAs.
Here's a look at the most notable snubs behind Illinois State.
Ultimately, an RPI of 84 was just way too high, even if this program went all the way to the Final Four as a bubble team that squeaked in last year. The Orange (18-14, 10-8) had top-50 wins in bunches after finishing in the middle of the pack of the ACC. Marquee victories against Duke, Florida State and Virginia looked really, really nice. But Jim Boeheim's group only won two games total away from the Carrier Dome, which likely was the deciding factor.
The Fighting Illini (18-14, 8-10) lost in the Big Ten tournament to eventual champion Michigan. Had this team not lost to Rutgers in its season finale, maybe Groce would still have a job and opportunity to prove himself in the NCAAs one last time. After his firing, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Illinois was not getting in.The Illini had an RPI in the 60s and their best wins all came against borderline teams — beating Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa.
The Bulldogs (19-14, 9-9) weren't really snubbed considering they were a bubble team of What Ifs. They almost beat Florida and Kentucky in overtime losses and just couldn't get the marquee win that would've put them over the edge like fellow SEC bubble team Vanderbilt did against Florida. A top-20 strength of schedule looked solid, but their top wins were all against other bubble teams. Plus they had a profile blemish with a loss to Oakland.
The Hawkeyes were close after winning four in a row to close out the regular season but got dominated by Indiana in the Big Ten tournament to all but seal their fate. Despite five top-50 wins, the Big Ten's overall strength didn't do them any favors, nor did an RPI of 81.
The Bears (21-12, 10-8) just didn't have enough meat on their resume. Had they beat Oregon in the Pac-12 semis, that likely would have shoved them in. An RPI of 53 and no bad losses kept Cal in the discussion, but the lack of eye candy led to a disappointing Sunday.
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