Illinois basketball fans had a long, painful, road to get back to the Sweet 16

I wasn't sure when it would happen again, but on Saturday night, Illinois basketball clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Mar 23, 2024; Omaha, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood gestures after the
Mar 23, 2024; Omaha, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood gestures after the / Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois basketball is back in the Sweet 16, and while we celebrate the great accomplishment, let’s not forget what we went through to get here.

Let’s take a trip down pain lane.

In an attempt to win the 2005 national championship, the Illini fall five points short of a North Carolina team that sported six future NBA players and a roster that had nine top 60 recruits. It was so painful watching the Illini come so close to winning the title but falling just short.

While this loss was painful, there was no reason to think that this was the end of a great run of success. In the four years prior to the national title run, Illinois had made the Sweet 16 three times, and one of those was a trip to the Elite 8.

A national title run to top those great achievements would surely help build recruiting, and Illinois basketball would be a powerhouse for years to come.

Luther Head was a senior and departed for the NBA. Deron Williams left Illinois a year early and was the No. 3 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. I believe the only reason Dee Brown returned for one more season was that he got injured during an NBA workout, so he returned to Champaign.

That 2005 national title run was special, but no one in Illini Nation had any idea that was the end of something special. No one could have guessed that would be the last time Illinois would reach the Sweet 16 until 2024.

The road back to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 has been rough for the Illinois basketball program

Illinois did benefit slightly from the national title run by that legendary squad. Late in 2005, the Illini received a commitment from the No. 2 ranked player in the class of 2007. He was a superstar guard from Indiana who would help take Illinois back to the promised land. The player, Eric Gordon.

In October 2006, Gordon did the unthinkable and changed his commitment. He decided to change his mind and flip his commitment to Indiana. This was a foreshadowing of things to come for the Illinois basketball program.

Illinois finished the 2006-07 season unranked for the first time in seven seasons, and we were a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. The following season, the Illini missed the NCAA tournament altogether, marking the first time we hadn’t been dancing in nearly a decade.

The program looked to be resurrected in 2010, though. Illinois landed three four-star recruits, two of whom were top 30 players in Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond.

After a second-round exit from the NCAA tournament in 2011, Richmond heads to the NBA. The other four-star from the class of 2010, Crandall Head, isn’t near the billing of his brother Luther. The 2010 class seemed to be crumbling, but a 7-foot-1 Leonard is coming back for his sophomore season. We can still make a run at getting deep in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois starts the 2011-12 season incredibly well. Leonard is playing lights out, and the Illini are 15-3 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten. We are ranked No. 22 in the country. Illinois was on pace to have a great year and make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.

Instead, Illinois goes 2-11 in the final 13 games and then falls short in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to Iowa. We finished that season 17-15 overall.

New athletic director Mike Thomas fires Bruce Weber. Leonard departs for the NBA and is a lottery pick in the first round. In steps John Groce as the head coach.

Illinois makes it to the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed in year one under Groce. This team was led by incredible play from Brandon Paul. After a second-round exit, the Illini would continue to fall apart. Paul left for the professional ranks. The injury bug plagued the Illini. Groce couldn’t secure the top recruits that were needed to get over the hump.

Over the next four seasons, Illinois failed to make the NCAA tournament. This led to the firing of Groce under the new athletic director, Josh Whitman. In steps Brad Underwood.

Underwood inherited a mess. His first order of business was to get recruiting on a competitive level. Ayo Dosunmu was secured, who was one of the top players in the country and the best player coming out of the state of Illinois.

The struggles were real in the first two years under Underwood, though. Illinois won a combined 26 games, which included a 12-win campaign in the first year with Ayo on the roster. But you could tell this team was starting to play better.

Illinois finally started to play well in 2019-20. We won 21 games that season and finished ranked for the first time since 2006. The 2020 NCAA tournament was going to end a six-year postseason drought. We were finally going back to the Big Dance.

A worldwide pandemic had other plans. COVID-19 swept through the world, effectively ending sports for months, and ending what would have been an NCAA tournament appearance for the Illini.

Ayo could have kept his name in the NBA Draft pool, but he decided to come back for one more year. This was our season. It was going to be special. Illinois tore through the Big Ten. We won the Big Ten Tournament and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed. The last time that happened, we went to the national championship game.

Illinois dominated Drexel in the first round. This was it. This was the time we break the Sweet 16 drought. All we have to do is beat No. 8 Loyola. Not only did we fail to beat the Fighting Sister Jeans, but we lost by double-digits. This was one of the most painful events in the last 20 years for the program.

After the disappointment, Ayo departed for the NBA. But Kofi Cockburn returned. He wanted to take Illinois back to the NCAA tournament. The Illini played well again, securing a No. 4 seed in the 2022 NCAA tournament.

A first-round narrow win over No. 13 Chattanooga led to another opportunity to get back to the Sweet 16. Was this our year? The answer was, no. No. 5 Houston throttled the Illini by another double-digit margin. Once again, we were left one game short of making it to the Sweet 16.

Last season was a bit of a down year, as Illinois finished with 20 wins and was the No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. We were a quick first-round exit again by double-digit points. This time it was to No. 8 Arkansas.

So, heading into the 2023-24 campaign, no one really knew what type of team Illinois would put on the court. Terrence Shannon Jr. was back in the fold, but he was just solid last season. We lost Matthew Meyer and a few transfers. Brad Underwood’s additions weren’t mind-blowing at the time either.

Quincy Guerrier was a nomad and Illinois was his third stop. He was okay with Syracuse and Oregon. Illinois bought in another fifth-year guy in Justin Harmon who had put up decent numbers with Utah Valley. And then we secured a commitment from some Southern Illinois player named Marcus Domask.

The additions didn’t seem like enough to push Illinois over the edge and get us to the second weekend in the NCAA tournament. Shoot, I think most people were just hoping to get back to the postseason this year.

Illinois did start the season ranked No. 25 in the nation, but that had a lot to do with how old and experienced our roster was coming into the 2023-24 campaign. We started the season well. By the turn of the calendar to 2024, Illinois was in the top 10, sitting at No. 9 in the nation.

Could this be our year? Just days before that No. 9 ranking, Illinois suspended Shannon. He was and currently is charged with rape and sexual battery in Lawrence, Kansas. The alleged incident is still awaiting the preliminary hearing, which is set to take place on May 10. This news and case are a very serious matter and still remains that to the day.

On the basketball court, this could have easily crumbled the program. Illinois suspended Shannon, and in the six games without the star guard, the team seemed to play decently well. Shannon sued to get back on the court while he awaits his hearing, and he won the case.

Shannon came back to Illinois and looked terrible for the first few games. There was a chance that if he continued to look that bad on the court, Illinois would see another early exit from the NCAA tournament.

After a few games back, Shannon’s game started to come around. Illinois was winning again, and a top seed in the NCAA tournament seemed likely. We entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 2 seed and swept through to a conference tournament crown.

Illinois then entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed. This wasn’t an easy first-round game against Morehead State, as Illinois has lost as a No. 3 seed to a No. 14 seed in the past. The Illini swept through that game with a double-digit win.

On Saturday, Illinois had the chance to break a near-20-year Sweet 16 drought. All it took was to beat No. 11 Duquesne Dukes. Right out of the gates, Illinois sent a message. The Dukes never led, and Illinois clinched a spot in the Sweet 16.

From 2000 through 2007, in eight seasons, Illinois made eight NCAA tournament appearances. We also had four Sweet 16s, one resulted in an Elite 8 appearance, and another a run to the national title in that stretch.

From 2008 through 2023, in 16 seasons, Illinois made six NCAA tournament appearances. The best we could do was get to the second round four times and were a first-round exit the other two times.

The Sweet 16 streak is finally broken. Let’s celebrate the great accomplishment and acknowledge the trials and tribulations over nearly two decades. Illinois basketball went from being one of the elite big boys of the college world to being an afterthought and a joke. Now, we are back at the top once again. We have waited a long time for this, now let’s rejoice.

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