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Two years ago, today: The Illini were Big Ten champs

The good ole’ days.

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

On Sunday, the 2023 NCAA Tournament Bracket came out. Nine-seed Illinois will travel to Des Moines to play 8-seed Arkansas.

This 2022-23 Illini team has not lived up many fans’ expectations. Whether those expectations were warranted or inflated by two wins early in the season is a whole different story.

Two years ago to the day — March 14, 2021 — the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket came out. As the selection show came on, Illinois was still cutting down the nets after defeating Ohio State 91-88 in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament.

Illinois was awarded a 1-seed in 2021. We don’t need to talk about what happened in that tournament. Instead, let’s focus on the 2021 Big Ten Tournament!

To take a proper look at the 2021 Big Ten Tournament, we have first go back to March 8, 2020.

On that day, Illinois defeated Iowa in what would be the last game of the 2019-20 season. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu saluted the crowd postgame, as most thought it would be his last home game in an Illinois uniform.

The win over Iowa propelled Illinois into a double-bye in the 2020 Big Ten Tournament.

Everyone knows what happened on March 13, 2020.

The cancellation of the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament left Illini fans wondering what the 2019-20 team could’ve done.

But without those two cancellations, I don’t think Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn return to Champaign in the fall of 2020 for unfinished business.

Behind those two stars, Illinois finished with a 20-6 record in the regular season.

Their 16-4 Big Ten record was good enough for second* in the Big Ten.

*Michigan “won” the conference with its fraudulent 14-3 conference record following multiple games cancelled due to COVID-19.

Illinois entered the 2021 Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis and wasted no time, beating 7th-seeded Rutgers 90-68 in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, Illinois defeated 3rd-seeded Iowa 82-71.

On Championship Sunday, Illinois faced 5th-seeded Ohio State, who topped Michigan the day before.

Illinois came out on fire, leading by 17 points with 9:45 left in the first half. Ohio State continued to chip away to make it only a five point deficit going into halftime.

Kofi Cockburn had 11 points and Da’Monte Williams was 3-of-3 from deep in the first half.

Early in the second half, Giorgi Bezhanishvili scored 10 straight points for the Illini, giving them a 55-46 lead with 12 minutes left in the second half.

Ohio State’s Justice Sueing made a layup with 23 seconds remaining in the second half to tie the game at 77. Illinois was unable to break the tie and the game went to overtime.

In overtime, Illinois outlasted the Buckeyes behind Freshman Guard Andre Curbelo and Sophomore Center Kofi Cockburn.

As the dust settled, Illinois won the game 91-88 in overtime. It was the Illini’s third Big Ten Tournament title.

Illinois had won seven straight and 14 of their its 15 going into the Big Dance.

When Ayo and Kofi came back for their sophomore and junior seasons, respectively, they came back because they had unfinished business in Champaign.

They finished the business in Indianapolis.

Now, let’s see if this year’s team can channel that magic and find a path to the second weekend.