State of Illinois college hoops is state of shame

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Illini coach John Groce will be under pressure next year to avoid missing the tournament again. | AP

When the clock strikes midnight, it will be Selection Sunday. Do you know where your state teams will be?

Not in the Big Dance.

Needing a big win over Wisconsin to assure its NCAA tournament case, Illinois was drubbed by Michigan before it even got to the Badgers.

Everyone else in the Land of Lincoln would have needed a miracle. In the end, Illinois State came closest, shocking No. 8 Wichita State and leading No. 11 Northern Iowa at halftime before turning into a pumpkin.

This will be the second straight year the state of Illinois has come up empty on Selection Sunday. This is its first back-to-back flop since 1974-75.

DePaul, which made 14 NCAA tournament trips in 17 years from 1976-92 under Ray and Joey Meyer, started the streak but has gone only twice since then and has become a nonentity.

Illinois, the backbone of the state’s hoops hopes, is in its most wobbly position in decades. It will be saddled with back-to-back tournament misses this March for only the second time since Lou Henson took the Illini to the 1981 tournament.

After missing the NCAA tournament just five times in 26 years from 1981-2007, Illinois now is about to miss it five times in eight years since 2008.

Strange as it might seem, Northwestern, which has never played in the NCAA tournament, heads into the off-season feeling encouraged about making its first Big Dance appearance in the near future.

“That’s why I came here, to elevate the program to that level,’’ second-year Cats coach Chris Collins said. “We have our whole core back. We’ll be adding some pieces as well. The future of our program is incredibly bright.’’

Guiding NU to the NCAA tournament wouldn’t be exactly the same as Joe Maddon’s mission to put the Cubs in the World Series. It wouldn’t be all that different, either.

Until Northwestern delivers, Illinois remains the state’s best bet as an NCAA standard-bearer.

That burden falls on the shoulders of Illini coach John Groce, who will face serious pressure to avoid a third straight NCAA miss next season.

Groce came within one possession of reaching the Sweet 16 in his first season at Illinois, but he missed his next two Big Dance opportunities and has left Illini Nation restless.

It’s way too early to start talking about making a change. But it’s not too early to say the Illini are not meeting expectations — inside the program or out.

In Groce’s defense, there have been challenges. Bruce Weber didn’t leave him a stocked cupboard. Groce and his staff have been only oh-so-close on some key recruits.

And the loss of Tracy Abrams to injury this season was major.

An effective point guard is like having a coach on the floor. Take him away, and that’s a big reason for head-scratching performances like the one Illinois had against Michigan.

Without a floor leader, other players aren’t as involved, and a team can look unprepared.

On the other hand, coaching major college basketball is a results-oriented deal.

People in Illinois want to watch teams from Illinois in the NCAA tournament. And it’s reasonable to assume that the Illini need to lead that charge.

Three NCAA bids in eight seasons is a troubling trend.

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