During halftime of Illinois' last home game on March 9, someone wearing Chief Illiniwek garb made a brief appearance in the aisle between Sections B and C at the Assembly Hall.
The Illini played a strong second half and beat Minnesota that afternoon, and it was the start of a four-game winning streak that carried the team into the Big Ten championship game.
Coincidence? I think not.
But not event the spirit of the Chief could help the overmatched Illini Sunday against the Wisconsin Badgers at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The Badgers prevailed 61-48, and as a result, there will be no NCAA tournament for Illinois this year.
Simply put, Wisconsin is a better team than Illinois. In fact, the Badgers are better than everybody in the Big Ten, as their 29-4 record attests.
I'm not sure a well-rested Illinois team could have won Sunday, let alone a team playing its fourth game in four days. Without a doubt, fatigue caught up with the boys in Orange and Blue. Just look at the shooting statistics.
Illinois made only 3 of 13 attempts from the 3-point line, while Wisconsin made 9 of 18. There's the difference. Granted, the Illini have been a poor shooting team all year, but the perimeter shots looked extra flat on Sunday.
On the bright side, seniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle finished their careers by playing well in the tournament. Pruitt, the local product, averaged 13.2 points and 8.5 rebounds for the weekend. In my opinion, it was his best four-game stretch of the season. He was active at both ends of the court and displayed an urgency that we haven't always seen this year.
But the bottom line is a 16-19 record isn't good enough to get any type of consideration for any postseason tournament. For the first time since 1999, I had no reason to watch the NCAA Selection Show.
The Land of Lincoln was shut out of the tournament this year. Illinois was down. Southern Illinois was down. Forget the NCAA, DePaul didn't even make the Big East tournament. UIC and Bradley were mediocre. Loyola was less-than-mediocre. Northwestern and Northern Illinois? Just brutal.
Illinois State went 24-9 out of the MVC, but the bubble burst with a lopsided 30-point loss to Drake in the conference title game.
From the Big Ten, Wisconsin is far and away the best bet to make a run. Purdue is too reliant on freshmen. Indiana is reeling after the buyout of its cheating coach, Kelvin Sampson. And Michigan State has been an inconsistent enigma all year.
The Badgers play excellent defense. They have a halfcourt offensive system that works, and they don't turn the ball over. Still, they lack the athleticism to gun with the North Carolinas and Kansases of the world. I don't see them or any other Big Ten team getting past the Sweet Sixteen this year.
So who will make the Final Four? I usually change my mind four or five times the first couple days after the bracket comes out. But my instincts tell me UCLA, Georgetown, Louisville and Texas.
Georgetown is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. The Hoyas are good defensive team that made the Final Four last year. Plus, Kansas is the No. 1 seed in that regional. I'm pretty sure there's a law in Illinois that says you can't pick a Bill Self-coached team.
The South Regional is being played in Houston this year, hence the pick of Texas. The top-seeded Memphis Tigers have a ton of talent, but they are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams I've ever seen. It will bite them at some point.
And I'm thinking outside the box to pick Louisville in the East. Rick Pitino's teams always play well in March. North Carolina, the top seed in the tournament, will have a difficult matchup in the Sweet Sixteen against fifth-seeded Notre Dame. The Irish possess the firepower to keep up with the Tar Heels.
I'm picking UCLA to win the national championship. They've made the Final Four the last two years. They come into the tournament on a 10-game winning streak, no small feat in a strong Pac 10 this year. They are an excellent defensive team. I figure the Bruins are due.
There you have it. Despite the lack of local interest, enjoy the tournament everybody.