Illinois State coach Dan Muller had himself prepared for Selection Sunday heartbreak. He says he's used to managing his emotions when it comes to something he cannot control.
His players were a different story.
After an agonizing week of waiting in which the Redbirds (27-6, 17-1) watched championship week closely — knowing different outcomes could push them on the right or wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble — the inescapable heartbreak set in after their name was not one of the 68 teams called for 2017's Big Dance. On most national bracketology boards, they were the first team out. And a No. 1 seed in the NIT is their consolation postseason fate. Other bubble teams like Syracuse, Illinois and Georgia all suffered a similar fate.
"My team is crushed," Muller said of his team's devastation. Illinois State players had a quick shootaround, then watched the selection show as a team, closed off to the public. Cameras were there just in case an at-large bid happened. "I feel terrible for them, especially my seniors. We feel we should be in but we aren't. It's tough to take but we'll have to gather ourselves and get ready for the NIT.
Muller, frustrated with the criticism that his team did not schedule hard enough as a mid-major, added: "We ask dozens of schools to play us every year and they won't. Don't talk to me about scheduling."
Ironically, this week Muller turned to King Rice, the head coach of last year's biggest NCAA tournament snub — Monmouth — for advice on how to prepare his players. Rice, among other mentors for Muller, helped the fifth-year coach construct a "cautiously optimistic" approach for his veteran-laden team during an anxiety-ridden week.
Muller remembers hearing Illinois State's name called on Selection Sunday when he was a player in 1998, the last time the Redbirds reached the NCAA tournament. That time the program knew it would be dancing, having won the Missouri Valley's auto bid. This year, despite finishing as co-MVC champions with Wichita State in the regular season, a 20-point loss in the MVC tournament final against the red-hot Shockers meant the Redbirds' résumé would be examined all week long with their postseason fate fully out of their control.
The NCAA selection committee made it clear Illinois State's profile was fully examined. But ultimately it lacked what the committee needed much more of: Top 50 Ratings Percentage Index wins. The Redbirds had just one top-50 win, against the Shockers, to go with two résumé-staining losses to Tulsa and Murray State. Illinois State likely paid the cost of the committee veering away from placing a high value on a team's overall RPI. Last season, for instance, Syracuse squeaked into the field with a worst-ever 72 RPI. The Redbirds' Selection Sunday RPI of 33 is one of the 10 best RPIs to be snubbed from the NCAAs.
Here's a look at the most notable snubs behind Illinois State.