The Illinois Fighting Illini play Northwestern at the United Center on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois is 37-16 all time at the home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, which includes two Big Ten Tournament title-winning runs in 2003 and ‘05.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane at the UC. Just like life itself, we’ve had our share of elation and heartbreak; of celebratory wins and mortifying losses. As the snow falls, as the Christmas and Hanukkah tunes blare throughout our coffee shops, homes and hearths — we remember the bad and the good because that is life. That is... Illini basketball.
1999 Big Ten Tournament at United Center
Background: 1998-99 was an awful season for Illinois Basketball. The team went 3-13 in Big Ten play and freshman Cory Bradford was the leading scorer.
The Tournament: Finishing last in the Big Ten regular season, not much was expected of an Illini team lacking leadership.
Then, three nights in early March happened. March 4: Illinois beats No. 23 Minnesota 74-67. March 5: Illinois beats No. 17 Indiana 83-66. March 6: Illinois beats No. 11 Ohio State 79-77.
Illinois would go on to face No. 2 Michigan State (the regular season Big Ten champs) for what would have been an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Illini fell 67-50 to the Spartans, a team that would reach the Final Four (and would win the National Championship the following year in 2000).
Significance: This could be a lesson for this current 2018-19 season. Illinois is looking like a team that will not finish toward the top of the Big Ten regular season standings. Still, as we’ve learned from 1999, anything can happen once Big Ten Tournament play starts. The magic of the United Center.
2003: Illinois Beats Northwestern Twice in Three Weeks at UC, eventually wins Big Ten Tournament
February 22, 2003: This was a regular season home game for our rivals to the north. Illinois beat the ‘Cats 73-61.
March 14, 2003: Big Ten Tournament Match 1. Illini takes care of Northwestern again, 94-65.
March 15, 2003: Illinois beats Indiana 73-72 en route to a Big Ten Tournament Title. They’d play and beat Ohio State the next day 72-59 to claim the Big Ten crown.
2005: Illinois goes 4-0 at UC in calendar year, including second Big Ten Tournament title.
March 11, 2005: Illini beat Northwestern, 68-51. This game would kickstart an eight-game win steak that would not end until the 2005 Championship game against UNC.
March 12, 2005: Illini beat Minnesota, 64-56.
March 13, 2005: Illini beat No. 23 Wisconsin, 54-43, to claim second Big Ten Tournament title in three years.
December 3, 2005: A non-conference game the following season, Illinois beat Xavier, 65-62.
2010: A year of heartbreak; losses to Gonzaga and UIC
January 2, 2010: Illini lose an 85-83 overtime thriller at UC to Gonzaga. Dominique Keller and true freshman Demetri McCamey would combine for 42 of Illinois’ 83 points.
December 18, 2010: Illinois loses to UIC 57-54. In hindsight, this loss was the beginning of the end for Bruce Weber in Champaign. Illinois would finish the 2010-11 season .500 in Big Ten play and lose to Kansas by 14 in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Also, Robo Kreps.
2012: Illinois beats Auburn 81-79
December 29, 2012: This game was packed, almost a full house — unlike what tonight’s game will be. The Illini were the much better team and ranked No. 12 in the country heading into the matchup. Illini would go onto win 81-79 against an Auburn team that would eventually hire Bruce Pearl. Boo.
2013: No one remembers losing to Indiana the day after; everyone remembers the magic of Brandon Paul
March 14, 2013: PURE ELATION ILLINI NATION.
2016: Settle in for the Double Header — Northwestern/Dayton & Illinois/BYU
December 17, 2016: Overall a great concept and one that united basketball fans of four universities: Illinois, Northwestern, Dayton and BYU. Fans who bought tickets were paying admission for the back-to-back contests.
Northwestern beat Dayton 67-64 in a comeback thriller for the ‘Cats. Illini beat BYU 75-73. It was an electrifying atmosphere on a cold, snowy day in Chicago.
2019: Can Illinois win the Big Ten Tournament?
Tune in at 8 p.m. on Wednesday on BTN to find out.