Illinois aims to go deep in March Madness this year
With a Big Ten Tournament title in 2021 followed by a 2022 Big Ten regular season co-championship, Illinois has reestablished itself as one of the top programs in the conference.
Now the Illini aim to do the same thing on the national stage.
Illinois, who earned the No. 4 seed in the South region on Sunday, has not played into the second week of the NCAA Tournament since the 2005 team reached the championship game and lost to North Carolina.
This year's Illinois team, which takes a 22-9 record into the tournament after a 65-63 loss to Indiana on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament, is eager to prove it can play with the country's best. They start with a matchup Friday in Pittsburgh against No. 13 Chattanooga (27-7), who beat Furman 64-63 to win the Southern Conference Tournament.
"We had a pretty good idea we were going to be locked in the 3, 4 (seed) area," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "It's a great day. We've got a great opponent who has won a lot of games. We'll have to play really well."
Of course, many thought last year Illinois would make that national statement. But they didn't last long as a No. 1 seed, getting upset by Loyola 71-58 in the second round.
The Illini are planning to use that as extra motivation.
"That experience last year, being in that locker room and crying, and feeling like we didn't play our best, I know we won't have that feeling this year because we are prepared for what it is," center Kofi Cockburn said.
And if the Illini needed any more incentive, CBS analyst Seth Davis immediately picked Chattanooga to upset Illinois as the country watched the brackets unveiled.
"I know a lot of people will be betting against us and always will be people that don't believe in us," Illini sophomore Coleman Hawkins said. "We're not focused on that and hopefully prove anyone who doubts us wrong."
A pair of super seniors are back from that Loyola loss: point guard Trent Frazier, an All-Big Ten second team selection, and guard Da'Monte Williams. Both should be hungry to write a different ending -- Frazier shot 1-for-10 vs. Loyola and Williams was 0-3. They had company struggling that afternoon -- even Bulls rookie standout Ayo Dosunmu finished with 9 points and 6 turnovers.
Cockburn was one of the few bright spots with 21 points, and he's been a force throughout his junior season averaging 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds. He missed five games this year, and the Illini lost to Marquette and Maryland without him.
That's been another theme to the Illini's season -- never having their lineup intact. It started with Cockburn out the first three games, continued with sophomore Andre Curbelo missing 14 games with a concussion and COVID, and as recently as Friday's loss in the Big Ten Tournament Illinois played without its fourth-leading scorer, senior Jacob Grandison (shoulder).
Even Sunday, Frazier and Hawkins were wearing glasses when the brackets were revealed because they have pinkeye.
Grandison's injury has given Hawkins a chance for more playing time, and the 6-foot-10 forward has delivered. He scored 18 points against Indiana after grabbing 11 rebounds in the Big Ten clinching win over Iowa on March 6.
Curbelo, another sophomore, is getting closer to 100 percent. Illinois will need the hot shooting from senior guard Alfonso Plummer, a third team All-Big Ten selection who averaged 14.8 points and led the conference in 3-pointers, and not his 2-for-12 effort in the loss to Indiana.
Grandison is listed as day-to-day, and if Illinois gets him back for the NCAA Tournament, it would go into Friday's game relatively healthy for one of the few times this season.
They will need it with a path that starts against a Chattanooga team that didn't play a Power Five school this year. The Mocs are led by 6-foot-4 guard Malachi Smith (20.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6-1 guard David Jean-Baptiste (14.7 ppg), and they have former Kansas center Silvio DeSousa (11.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) to try and slow Cockburn.
"We have to have fun," Underwood said. "One thing about the NCAA Tournament, it goes fast. We're going to let it fly, we are going to execute, we are going to play hard. You have to enjoy the moment."
This is the seventh time Illinois has been a No. 4 seed. They have an 8-6 record as a 4 seed since 1986, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2004.
If Illinois -- one of nine Big Ten teams in the tourney -- wins Friday, it plays either No. 5 Houston or No. 12 UAB on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16. No. 1 Arizona, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Tennessee are the other top seeds in the South region.
"It doesn't matter what your record is, what your seed is," Frazier said. "It just matters who is better that night. With that experience last year us having the No. 1 seed, we weren't ready for that. We weren't the best that night. Our mindset right now is trying to go out every night and be the best that night."