The Field of 68 is set, and Illinois is in the mix.
In Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show, the Illini heard their names called for the third year in a row. This year, they will be a 9-seed, facing off against the No. 8 seeded Arkansas on Thursday in Des Moines.
This is the second time Illinois has been a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with the first being in 2011.
Brad Underwood has led this program to its first three-year NCAA Tournament streak since 2005-07. Tournament appearances are hard to come by, and this one came after many ups and downs throughout the year.
But how did they get here?
Well, buckle in, because this season was a wild ride.
After a handful of players left Illinois following the 2021-22 season, the Illini only had three players returning who saw significant minutes the year prior.
Big offseason additions of transfers Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer as well as a surge of highly touted recruits led by Skyy Clark gave Illinois fans an unpredictable yet exciting new squad.
After starting 3-0 on the season, a new-look Illinois traveled to Vegas to face off against No. 8 UCLA and No. 16 Virginia.
The top-10 Bruins charged to a 15-point lead to start the second half, but a red-hot Shannon — 8-for-9 from three — energetic Sencire Harris and efficient Dain Dainja off the bench gave the Illini the boost they needed to run away with a huge 79-70 win.
The next day, Illinois wasn’t able to follow the comeback win with another against Virginia. The game was tight throughout, but late offensive struggles gave way to a 13-0 Cavaliers’ run and the Illini’s first loss of the season.
Losing its Big Ten opener to Maryland less than two weeks later left Illinois without any momentum heading into the Jimmy V Classic against No. 2 Texas.
Mayer was hot early to give the Illini a lead at halftime, but a second-half drought left them trailing by eight with six minutes left. However, big shots from Mayer and Jayden Epps forced overtime, and Shannon took control in the extra period to give Illinois a big 85-78 win on an even bigger stage.
It’s pretty clear that without these two wins — Illinois’ only Quad 1 wins — the Illini wouldn’t have heard their name called Sunday.
These two neutral-site wins put expectations at an extremely high level for this squad, but from there on out, Illinois was arguably one of the most confusing teams in college basketball.
Three bad losses — 15 points to Penn State, 22 points to Missouri, 13 points to Northwestern — in its next five games put Illinois at 9-5 and 0-3 in Big Ten play for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
At this point, everyone was freaking out about the state of this team, and Skyy Clark leaving the program following the loss to Northwestern seemingly made matters worse. How would Illinois respond to its worst stretch of the season?
By winning seven of its next eight games, of course. Did anyone else see that coming? Because we sure didn’t.
A pair of wins against Wisconsin and a hard-fought home victory against Michigan State highlighted the streak, and before anyone knew it, Illinois moved from last in the Big Ten to second.
In the final 10 games of the season, the results were somehow even more crazy and confusing than what came before.
Embarrassing road losses to Penn State and Ohio State. An unbelievable 19-point comeback win over Northwestern. Two nail-biting road losses to Iowa and Indiana.
Home victories over then-ranked Rutgers and over Michigan on Senior Night in double OT. A 24-point comeback at No. 5 Purdue falling just short.
And on top of it all, what happens next you ask? Well of course, a THIRD loss to Penn State on Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament in front of a “home” United Center crowd.
The last 10 games summed up this season perfectly with how much of a roller coaster it truly was, and when all was said and done, the Illini went 4-6 in those contests.
They now enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the most potentially dangerous yet non-threatening teams in the field. No, we don’t understand it either. This team has Final Four potential while also having the exact same potential to get bounced by ___ right away.
Madness is created in March by teams just like this. At this point, the only thing that makes sense is that this team — and every NCAA Tournament in past years — makes entirely no sense. That’s what’s so irritating yet unbelievably fascinating about this time of year.
But once you’re in the dance, anything can happen, no matter who you are. Happy March.