Illinois basketball No. 3 seed NCAA tournament history shows mixed bag

The 2024 NCAA tournament opens up on Thursday, and the Illini look to make a run as the No. 3 seed. This spot has shown a mixed bag for the Illini in the past, though.
Nick Anderson
Nick Anderson / Jonathan Daniel/GettyImages

Illinois basketball enters the 2024 NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed, a spot most fans haven’t seen in a long time.

The Illini have been a mainstay in the NCAA tournament for the last half-decade. We have made four straight postseason appearances, and three out of those four trips were as a top-four seed.

Getting slotted in as a No. 3 seed is not familiar to most Illini fans, though. Anyone under the age of 40 years old probably doesn’t remember the last time Illinois entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed.

Illinois basketball No. 3 seed NCAA tournament history

1987-88 – 23-10 overall (12-6 Big Ten)

You have to go back to the 1988 NCAA tournament to find the last time the Illini donned the No. 3 seed in the postseason.

That year, Illinois went 23-10 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten. It was the team before the team, similar to that of the 2004 NCAA tournament. Illinois was laced with talent such as Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, and Stephen Bardo.

Illinois managed to get through the first round, beating No. 14 UTSA 81-72. Lowell Hamilton came off the bench and gave Illinois 21 huge points. Glynn Blackwell led all starters with 19 points of his own.

The Illini then took on a tough No. 6 seed Villanova Wildcats program in the second round. Villanova lit Illinois up from behind the three-point arc, going 7-of-15, 46.7%, in the game. Despite Bardo, Battle, Anderson, and Gill all scoring double-digit points, the Illini couldn't hold on, falling to Villanova, 66-63.

  • R64 – W 81-72 vs #14 UTSA
  • R32 – L 66-63 vs #6 Villanova

1986-87 – 23-8 overall (13-5 Big Ten)

The season before the disappointing second-round exit in 1988 provided even more disappointment. Illinois was the No. 3 seed in the 1987 NCAA tournament as well.

This Illini squad finished the year 23-8 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten. Again, they were laced with talent with Ken Norman leading the way averaging over 20 points per game. After finishing the 1986-87 season with four straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Indiana, Illinois entered the postseason as the No. 3 seed.

Illinois’ first-round matchup was against No. 14 Austin Peay. There wasn’t anything particularly good about this Austin Peay group, but they caught fire at the right time. Illinois put up decent offensive numbers, but the Governors were too much on this day.

Austin Peay came out firing. They were 6-of-16, 37.5%, from three-point range. They also had two players score over 20 points in the game. This offensive effort was enough to upset the No. 3 seed Illini, 68-67.

  • R64 – L 68-67 vs #14 Austin Peay

1984-85 – 26-9 overall (12-6 Big Ten)

The first time Illinois was a No. 3 seed was in the 1985 NCAA tournament. Lou Henson had the Illini playing well, finishing the 1984-85 season 26-9 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten.

Illinois had a well-balanced team that season with four players averaging at least 10 points per game, and numerous upperclassmen led the squad.

The first two rounds were relatively easy for the Orange and Blue. We took down No. 14 Northeastern in the first round 76-57. Ken Norman led the way with 23 points, and four out of the five Illini starters had at least 10 points in the game.

Illinois had an even better second round, taking down No. 6 Georgia, 74-58. We got out to a 15-point halftime lead and cruised to an easy second-round win. Norman, Efrem Winters, and Doug Altenberger all had at least 15 points in the contest.

The Sweet 16 was a different story, though. Illinois ran into the ACC regular season and tournament champ, Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were the No. 2 seed and wielded their strength in a 61-53 win over the Illini. Altenberger was the only Illinois player who had a great game, tallying 24 points in the loss.

  • R64 – W 76-57 vs #14 Northeastern
  • R32 – W 74-58 vs #6 Georgia
  • S16 – L 61-53 vs #2 Georgia Tech

Next. 5 big observations from the Illinois basketball win over Wisconsin. 5 big observations from the Illinois basketball win over Wisconsin. dark