We'll know for sure some time next Sunday, but barring some sort of miraculous collapse, John Groce will have managed to take our beloved Fighting Illini to the NCAA tournament in his first season on the job. He'll have done so using essentially the same team as the year prior, when they didn't even play in the NIT. And lost a lottery pick.
But I'm not here to fawn over Groce (though I could and would feel no shame in doing so). I'm here to put that sweet, sweet media guide I was given on that most glorious of days to work. I started wondering about the line of coaches that came before our current and beloved cue ball. Coach Groce is the 9th Illini basketball head coach since the tournament started back in 1939. Let's look at the other eight.
The tournament started in Mills' third season as head coach and was comprised of only eight teams (and no conference could have multiple representatives until after 1975), so it's not too much of an indictment on his legacy that he only made one trip to the dance and that wasn't until his sixth season on the job. The 1941-42 Illini season would end at the hands of the Kentucky Wildcats, losing 46-44 in the East Regional Semifinal. There was a third place game for the Regionals back then as well, which we lost to future conference rival Penn State.
Combes' first appearance in the tourney came in 1949, his second season. The Illini would beat Yale 71-67 to advance to the East Regional Finals where they would fall yet again to the Kentucky Wildcats in a 76-47 blowout. A 57-53 win over the Oregon State Beavers would secure a third place finish for our boys. The field expanded to sixteen teams from 1951-1952, and Combes' teams went both years with their best finish being another third place trophy in 1952 after being eliminated by St. John's and then beating Santa Clara in the consolation match. The Illini would make one more trip to the now-expanded between 22-25 teams tournament during Combes' tenure, losing in the Mideast Regional Final to the eventual National Champion Loyola (IL) Ramblers.
Schmidt played for Harry Combes, but on none of his teams that made it to the postseason. None of the seven teams he coached at Illinois would reach the postseason. Welcome to the dark ages of Illini basketball history.
It almost feels unfair to even list Bartow, since he would only spend one season in Champaign. But his team went 8-18, which was not good enough to make the 32 team tournament. I know, I'm just as shocked as you are. He somehow parlayed that awful season into replacing John Wooden at UCLA. We were the only school Bartow did not succeed at.
But Bartow led to Lou Henson, so there's that silver lining we like to look for. Lou would watch the field expand from 32 to 40 to 48 teams before making his first appearance with the Illini in 1980, his sixth season with the school. A close 67-65 win over Wyoming would send Illinois to face off against the Kansas State Wildcats in the West Regional Semifinal, which they would lose 57-52.
Lou would make 11 more trips to the tournament, with his best finish being the Flying Illini squad's heartbreaking loss to the Michigan Wolverines in the 1989 National Semifinal. If you're old enough to remember that (I am not), sorry for reopening old wounds.
By the time Lon would replace Lou, the tournament had become the 64 team setup we'd all grown used to (before the weird play-in games became a thing). Kruger wasted no time, making the postseason in his first year in town. The 96-97 team would beat the USC Trojans 90-77 in the first round, but fall to the Chattanooga Mocs 75-63 in the next round. Lon would take two more Illini teams dancing, but never made it past the second round before jumping to the NBA.
Alright, we've now reached coaches I actually remember watching. Bill led all three Illini teams he coached into the postseason, with his first trip being his most successful. The 2000-01 Illini would crush esteemed powerhouse universities like the Northwestern State Demons and the Charlotte 49ers before taking out the Kansas Jayhawks to advance to the Elite Eight where they would lose to the eventual National Runner-Up Arizona Wildcats.
Bruce would keep the streak alive, taking his first team all the way to the Atlanta Regional Semifinal in his first year. They'd lose handily to National Runner-Up Duke, but hey, it's still a deep tourney run. Weber would take five more teams dancing, with his most successful run being the second place finish to the hated North Carolina Tarheels in 2005. We are all old enough to remember that one, so I don't feel the need to apologize.
So now what? Well, it looks like Groce will be the 4th consecutive Illini coach to make the tournament in his first season. I'm hoping for a run like Self's first trip, though I'd happily settle for something like Kruger's. It's nice not having to worry about not hearing our name called out on Selection Sunday again. Let's hope this becomes a trend. Just think, in one year he's already been more successful than every coach Northwestern has ever hired.