Big 10 teams seek NCAA

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 13, 2003

CHICAGO - No. 13 Illinois is a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament. Ditto for No. 18 Wisconsin, the Big Ten's regular-season champs.

With 18 wins each, Michigan State and Purdue can probably start packing their bags, too. Minnesota and Indiana? Now that's where things start getting iffy.

''Honestly, no, we don't feel like we're in good shape,'' Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. ''We're in the danger area. I hate to say it because it's such a media term, but we're on the bubble.''

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But that's what the Big Ten tournament is for. A good run in the tournament, which begins Thursday, could mean all the difference for the Gophers and Hoosiers when those coveted NCAA invitations are handed out Sunday.

Look at Iowa two years ago. The Hawkeyes came to the tournament needing to play their way into the NCAAs and came away with the Big Ten's automatic bid.

''I definitely think there's going to be some impact on selection Sunday based on what's done in our conference,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. ''Maybe more than there's been in recent years.''

The top five seeds - Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State - all have first-round byes. Indiana, the sixth seed, plays 11th-seeded Penn State on Thursday. Minnesota, seeded seventh, faces Northwestern, the 10th seed.

Ohio State and Iowa also meet in the first round, a rematch of last year's championship game.

While Indiana (18-11, 8-8 Big Ten) and Minnesota (16-11, 8-8) have perfectly respectable records that could be attractive to the NCAA selection committee, both have been hurt by stumbles late in the season.

Indiana, which was No. 6 in the country after winning the Maui Invitational, lost at Northwestern and Penn State - not exactly the Big Ten's powerhouses. Minnesota comes into the tournament on a four-game losing streak, though those four losses were to Wisconsin and at Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois.

''We definitely should get in,'' Indiana coach Mike Davis said. ''But I think we have to have 19 wins. Eighteen wins is not bad. But what I want to do is play well from here on out.''

Minnesota and Indiana - and all other bubble teams - got some help when Georgia pulled out of the SEC and NCAA tournaments after an investigation showed evidence of academic fraud by players. At No. 21, the Bulldogs were certain to get an NCAA bid.

But that's only one spot, and there are plenty of teams who want it.

''I think we have as good an opportunity as anybody if we get on a roll,'' Monson said. ''It's the team that makes shots and that's something this team has the ability to do. If we do, we're going to have some fun in this tournament.''

While Minnesota and Indiana make their run at the NCAA tournament, Illinois has its own motivation. The Illini finished a game behind Wisconsin in the regular-season standings, and they'd like nothing better than to split the conference titles with the Badgers.

Winning the conference tournament might bump their NCAA seed up a notch or two, too.

''There's more to play for,'' Illinois coach Bill Self said. ''We didn't win the league, and we'd like to show people, to actually win a championship because we haven't won anything.''

And then there's Michigan. The Wolverines made one of the most amazing turnarounds in college basketball, winning 13 straight after losing their first six.

But Michigan is banned from the NCAA tournament as part of self-imposed sanctions stemming from a scandal involving a former booster, so this is it. A loss, and the Wolverines' season ends.

''Knowing that we were not eligible for the NCAAs, we certainly wanted to see if we could deserve something beyond the Big Ten tournament, and I think we've done that,'' coach Tommy Amaker said.

''The entire season has been very meaningful for our team, and I think we've displayed that in a variety of different ways. I think we've played with a certain amount of passion and hunger. We're very proud of where we sit right now.''