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Columnist
Big Ten - Illini included - shouldn't be punished today
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/14/2009 11:54 PM

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INDIANAPOLIS - As the new guy on Illinois' roster, junior college transfer Dominique Keller said all the right things on Saturday when another reporter had his tape recorder rolling.

"We didn't make the NCAA Tournament last year," said the loquacious Texas native. "We're in it this year, so we're happy to go anywhere."

Then the recorder clicked off - and Keller turned to his left to joke with teammate Demetri McCamey.

"You know where I'm trying to get," Keller said. "The beach."

Sure enough, when CBS reveals the 65 teams in this year's NCAA Tournament at 5 p.m. today, eight lucky teams will be assigned to the Miami subregional.

Uh, guys, you think Bruce Weber's actually going to give you some free beach time if the Illini are sent to Florida?

"We're going to have to go a couple days early," McCamey said with a smile.

What, you'll get a doctor's note to be excused from Monday and Tuesday's practices in Champaign?

"I'm going to rest this bum knee, this rotten knee," Keller deadpanned. "It's been rotten my whole life."

Speaking of rotten, the bracketologists and experts out east finally have come to terms with the fact the Big Ten deserves at least seven spots in this year's NCAA Tournament.

Considering the Big Ten has been the nation's second-ranked conference for the last three months - according to the RPI as well as the Sagarin ratings - it seems an easy call to reward the league.

But now that seven teams looks like a done deal, the argument has changed.

I didn't listen to the Illinois-Purdue broadcast Saturday because I was too busy covering the game from the same row as Jim Nantz.

But, apparently, CBS' play-by-play king uttered at some point during Purdue's 66-56 win that the Illini looked like a perfect 8 or 9 seed.

If Nantz based his observation solely on Illinois' performance against the Boilers, then bully for him. In fact, he might have been kind.

But if he's looking at Illinois' body of work, here's something to consider: The Illini owned a 5-3 record against Sagarin's top 25 teams through Friday's games (the Purdue loss dropped that to 5-4).

You can count the number of other Division I schools with a winning record against Sagarin Top 25 teams with two hands and two toes.

In other words, the Illini float in the same above-. 500 boat with national title contenders like North Carolina, Louisville, Pitt, UConn and Michigan State.

It says here that Illinois deserves no worse than a No. 6 seed today. And Purdue, now that Robbie Hummel says his fractured back "feels real good," looks no worse than a 4 seed.

Of course, maybe my Midwest vision is a little skewed. I thought Michigan State warranted a No. 1 seed had it beaten Ohio State on Saturday, which even goes against Spartans coach Tom Izzo's opinion.

But Izzo, though he was speaking about his team, summed up the Big Ten's unexpectedly successful season perfectly.

"We've had a heck of a year," Izzo said. "I'd like to finish it off by making a deep run in the tournament and we're going to see if we can do that. Thank you."

lwillhite@dailyherald.com