Illinois bids goodbye to disappointing season

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Illinois coach Bruce Weber, left, and assistant coach Jerrance Howard shout instructions to their team during the second half of Illinois’ 66-48 win over Purdue in an NCAA college basketball game Sunday Feb. 8, 2009, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/John Dixon)

When the National Invitation Tournament bracket was released Sunday, Illinois wasn’t in the field of 32.

It wasn’t clear, though, whether not being invited to the NIT, also known as the Not Invited Tournament, was a snub – or a relief.

The players voted on Friday against playing in the NIT, a team source said.

Reports of the lack of interest prompted spokesman Kent Brown to advise media on Saturday that if selected, the Illini would play. Because the NIT is operated by the NCAA, there is no declining the invitation. Participation is required.

‘‘Anytime the University of Illinois is not involved in postseason play, it hurts; we’re disappointed,” interim coach Jerrance Howard said in a statement. ‘‘For our returning players, this should serve as motivation, so we don’t feel this way next year on Selection Sunday.”

Whether Illinois wasn’t selected because it showed a lack of interest or because it wasn’t judged NIT-worthy is an open question. At 17-15, with 12 losses in its last 14 games, the Illini were, as Bruce Weber noted Thursday in Indianapolis, on the NIT bubble.

An NIT bracketologist – yes, there are NIT bracketologists – had projected the Illini as a No. 6 seed in the tournament, which is divided into four regions of eight seeds apiece.

After Weber was fired Friday by athletic director Mike Thomas, a team already in low spirits was even less interested in extending its season.

In addition, Howard is a relatively young assistant who would’ve been put in a difficult situation. A big fan of Howard, Thomas would like to see him remain on the staff of Illinois’ next coach if that can be worked out.

But coaching in a postseason tournament in which the players aren’t all that interested is a different matter.

In addition, Illinois would’ve needed to open on the road because Assembly Hall is occupied by a Cirque du Soleil show. A repeat of its 2010 NIT trip to Stony Brook, even though Illinois won, wouldn’t have added to the sentiment that Illinois is one of the 10 best jobs in the nation.

Former Illini forward Mike Davis made the point about NIT ennui on Saturday, tweeting: ‘‘So my Illini boys turned down the NIT! I would’ve too if I had that chance my junior year! Super weak!”

There are two other postseason tournaments below the NIT, but Thomas ruled out that possibility, saying, ‘‘It’s the NIT or bust.”

With three Big Ten teams (Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota) in the NIT beyond the six in the NCAA tournament, the Illini, Penn State and Nebraska are the only Big Ten teams not playing in the postseason.

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