Illinois Basketball: 5 greatest seasons in Illini history

Indiana Hoosiers v Illinois Fighting Illini
Indiana Hoosiers v Illinois Fighting Illini / Jonathan Daniel/GettyImages
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The men's Illinois basketball team began back in 1906, and under head coach Elwood Brown, the team finished 6-8.

It wouldn't be until 1915 when the Illini broke through. That season, the Fighting Illini went 16-0, en route to its first Western Conference title. Illinois was also crowned the pre-tournament Premo-Porretta champions and the pre-tournament Helms champions.

In 119 seasons and counting, the Illini have complied a record of 1883-1056 with 18 Big Ten regular season titles and 33 NCAA Tournament appearances. 

Nonetheless, a lot has happened in the men's Illinois basketball history since its founding. Despite a plethora of information to dissect, this article will subjectively break down the five greatest seasons in program history.

Five greatest seasons in Illinois basketball history

5. 1950-51 season

  • 22-5 Overall
  • 13-1 Big Ten
  • Final 4
  • AP Final Ranking: 4th

Following World War II, the Illini hired Champaign High School head coach Harry Combes to replace Doug Mills.

Within his initial five seasons at the helm of the Orange and Blue, Combes led Illinois to three Final 4 berths. Combes was credited with implementing a new style of defense to the Illini; the fullcourt press. This led to a surplus of opponent turnovers and enabled Illinois to score fast break points. 

At the turn of the decade, Combes and the Illini were eyeing another deep run during the 1951 NCAA tournament. Throughout the season, Illinois overwhelmed its foes with relentless effort on defense. Senior guard and future NBA player Don Sunderlage netted 17.4 points per game. 

Illinois won the first two games of the 1951 NCAA tournament convincingly. In the national semifinals, the Adolph Rupp-led Kentucky Wildcats edged the Illini, 76-74 on the way to Rupp's third national championship with the program. 

The Illini collected third place nationally by beating Oklahoma A&M, 61-46, in Minneapolis. At season's end, Illinois finished fifth in the AP Poll.