Illinois left out of NIT, completing collapse

DAVID MERCER Associated Press Published:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- The collapse that cost Bruce Weber his job at Illinois became complete Sunday night when the Illini were snubbed by the National Invitation Tournament.

The Illini (17-15, 6-12 Big Ten) were waiting with fellow Big Ten schools Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa for news from the NIT. Only Illinois didn't get in, the second season in the past five that the Illini will miss the postseason altogether.

"Any time the University of Illinois is not involved in postseason play it hurts, so we're disappointed," Jerrance Howard, who was named interim head coach after Weber was fired Friday, said in an emailed statement. "On behalf of the entire program, I'd like to recognize our two departing seniors, Sam Maniscalco and Jean Selus, for their hard work, effort and sacrifice."

"For our returning players," he added, "this should serve as motivation heading into the offseason so we don't feel this way next year on Selection Sunday."

Athletic director Mike Thomas made it clear Friday as he announced that he'd fired Weber that, if extended, any bid to the NIT would be accepted. He said, however, that Illinois wasn't interested in the less prestigious College Basketball Invitational or tournaments.

Illinois players weren't available for comment Sunday.

Without an NIT bid, Illinois turns its full attention to the search for a replacement for Weber and, once that coach is hired, trying to retain as many of the players on the roster as possible, including 7-foot-1 sophomore center Meyers Leonard and the six freshmen who next year would make up the heart of the roster.

Leonard hasn't publicly said whether he plans to leave for the NBA. But talking with reporters after Thursday's loss to Iowa in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament, he sounded as if he's not likely to stay.

"I just wish all the guys best of luck," he said. "Hopefully, they keep fighting."

Illinois is rumored to be interested in talking to, among others, head coaches Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, Brad Stevens of Butler and Anthony Grant at Alabama. Former Chicago Bulls player and New Mexico State and Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus also has been mentioned. Illini coaching legend Lou Henson, who also coached at NMSU, said Friday that Theus would be interested.

The lack of an NIT game also means that Illinois fans won't get to see Howard, who has said he would consider remaining at Illinois as an assistant under Weber's replacement, run the team.

Weber lost his job in part over the Illini's late-season slide, but the team made it to the NCAA tournament in just two of the last four seasons. They last played in the NIT in 2010, their only trip to the second-tier tournament under Weber. Illinois lost to eventual-champion Dayton in the third round.


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