Illinois Basketball: Illini trying to achieve unfamiliar heights in NCAA tournament

The Illinois basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament and will have a tough road ahead.

It wasn’t that long ago when the Illini were struggling to make the NCAA tournament. We were floundering to 17, 18, or 19-win campaigns, and this would be good enough to make the bubble, at best.

In stepped Brad Underwood. The first couple of years were rough, but you could tell this program was turning around. The landing of the best player coming out of Chicago always helps. Ayo Dosunmu was a major player from an on-court and recruiting standpoint. He paved the path for others to join the Orange and Blue.

The first NCAA tournament berth for the Illini in the Underwood era would have been in 2020, but a worldwide pandemic that took out over 3 million people that year put the postseason run on the back burner.

Underwood and the Illini then made back-to-back NCAA tournaments led by Ayo and then big man Kofi Cockburn. With both of those talented All-American players gone, this rendition of Illinois looked completely different. But, at the end of the season, we are in the same spot as the prior two years; the NCAA tournament.

It was announced on Sunday night by Greg Gumbel and the CBS crew that the Illinois basketball team has made it back to the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed.

Illinois basketball is looking to achieve heights in the NCAA tournament that prior teams failed to accomplish

Now that Illinois is back in the NCAA tournament, it is time to see if we can survive and advance. That is something that hasn’t been achieved in quite some time.

While Underwood has led Illinois to the NCAA tournament the past two years, he hasn’t seen sustained success in the postseason. In both tournament runs, the Illini have only advanced to the second round before being eliminated. Both games were double-digit losses as well, a defeat to Loyola-Chicago by 13 points and to Houston by 15 points.

This isn’t unusual for an Illinois coach, though. In the lone NCAA tournament appearance during his first season in Champaign, John Groce got to the second round.

After the national title run back in 2005, Bruce Weber’s best NCAA tournament appearance was to the Round of 32 as well. He did that twice, and he also had two first round exits.

So, it is hard to get to the Sweet 16. That is what this Illinois team is trying to accomplish. We don’t have an easy road with a first-round matchup against No. 8 Arkansas and then a potential second-round matchup against No. 1 Kansas ahead of us, but if we can rattle off two big wins, a Sweet 16 berth would be an impressive feat. Let’s see if we can shock the world.