Illinois Fighting Illini NCAA Tournament History for Millenials


dee brown

The Illinois Fighting Illini would have seen their seven year NCAA Tournament drought snapped a year ago, getting in as a #6 or #7 seed most likely. Of course, last year brought no March Madness for anybody, as it was one of the first major casualties of the pandemic.

“Last year was taken away from us and we were playing great at the time,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said on media Zoom following his side’s double digit win over Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Underwood’s program turnaround is now complete.

His second team at Illinois, in 2018-19, broke the school record for single season losses. Now, just two years later, they’re ranked #3 in the entire country and they’ll be on the top seed line for the upcoming big dance. What a trip it’s been.

“When I came on my visit, I saw this program as a losing program,” said All-American center Kofi Cockburn. “They lost to a really bad team when I came here. That motivated me to come here and be a part of this change.”

Yes, Kofi’s first team suffered a lot of bad losses (Florida Atlantic, Northwestern and more) but that all feels like ancient history right now. And history is what we’re here for. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never figure out where you’re going.

As a Xennial, Half Gen-X/Half millenial, my Illini fandom experiience begins in 1991, a few years before I enrolled at the school. Having two of my three older sisters attend U of I, I am very familiar with what came before I checked in on Illini Athletics, however, for the purposes of this article, we’re only going to go through that which I remember vividly.

nick anderson illini basketball lou henson

On the eve of the Big Ten final against Ohio State/Selection Sunday, let’s stroll down memory lane.


The Flyin’ Illini are a little bit before my time, but so much has been written and said about these guys, deservedly so,  I feel I know their story pretty well. After all Dick Vitale HAS to mention them every single time he calls an Illini game for some reason.

As you know their story already, let’s move on.

kendall gill


Illinois followed up that magical season by falling prey to the dreaded #12 over #5 upset in Austin. The Dayton Flyers won 88-86, sending the Illini home early


After two years on probation, thanks to Bruce Pearl (this is one of a zillion reasons why he’s a not good human being), Illinois won as a #6 over the #11 seed Long Beach State in Salt Lake City. The joy didn’t last long as #3 seed Vanderbilt (yes, Vandy was once this good at basketball, amazingly) blew them out in round two.



One and done in the #8-#9 game at the hands of Georgetown. At least it was an entertaining game that featured a great big man match-up in Deon Thomas and Kiwane Garris.


Another cameo appearance as the Illini barely squeaked in as an #11 and got bounced by #6 seed Tulsa in Albany. The school’s all-time leading scorer, Thomas, and the second highest all-time scorer, Kiwane Garris teamed up for one season.

lou henson

For the seven years combined they were on campus, the pair never saw the second weekend of the tournament unfortunately. There are two prevailing themes as you go through Illini basketball NCAA Tournament history- a ton of second round outs/failing to reach the sweet sixteen is the first.

The second is the failure to ever pull off a big upset/make a deep run as a lower seed. While that can’t happen this year, maybe some year down the road it finally will.



Probably the second best team in the Big Ten that year behind Minnesota’s once in a generation Final Four squad, they beat USC, as a #6 handily in the first round. (Distinctively remember the view from Kam’s on this one). Then came the infamous story of what supposedly motivated #14 seed Tennessee-Chattanooga to knock them off in the second round.

The story goes that thin locker room walls in the arena led to the Mocs hearing the Illini getting cocky and celebrating before the game even began. All Illinois had to do was beat two double digit seeds and they would have reached the Elite 8. UT-Chattanooga players allegedly heard Illini players humming the March Madness television broadcast theme song, and exclaiming “we’re going to the Final Four.”

lon kruger oklahoma

No one on the Illini side affirmed this story at the time. Like the guy at the end of Jersey Boys said, ‘eh, you know everyone remembers things how they want to capeche!”


All senior starting five went 13-3 in the Big Ten and tied for conference title. Rather disappointing that they couldn’t get to the sweet sixteen given that fact. However, Exree Hipp and #4 seed Maryland, then an ACC team, were just too much for the fifth seeded Illini in round two.


From losing at the #5 to the #4 in the second round to falling as the #4 seed to the fifth seed in round two in back to back years. Are you getting annoyed and tired by the tediousness of always losing in the second round yet? At least this time, the opponent (Florida Gators) went all the way to the title game.

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A really special team that shared the conference title and earned a #1 seed, they easily crusied through the first three rounds. This included a 16 point win over the blue blood program that would hire Bill Self away.

Finally on the second weekend for the first time in forever, Illinois met Arizona for the third time that season in the Elite Eight. In the very rare three game series between out of conference sides, the Wildcats took the rubber match.

Arizona won in Maui, Illinois emerged victorious in the United Center, earlier that season.


Closest Illinois has ever come to scoring that big upset victory in the tourney, as Kansas got their revenge on the Illini from the year before. The Illini got back to the sweet sixteen, as a #4 seed, but lost by four to the Jayhawks in Madison.

This year had some really nice memories though of Illinois winning big at the United Center, then a de facto home court, in the first two rounds.


Another two and tootle-loo, this time at the hands of Notre Dame, who at the time were really in a tournament slump. This was an embarassing loss for Illinois.



Illinois gets their first ever tournament upset win since the era of seeding began. #5 seed Illinois knocks off #4 Cincinnati, in a game that comprised part of a MTV Newlyweds episode. Nick Lachey, of 98 Degrees, is a huge Cincy fan and the cameras captured him watching his team get whomped 92-68.

Duke knocked out Illinois in the next round.


You already know the story of this season: national runner-up, 37 wins (then a single season record), ranked #1 most of the year, the Mannheim Miracle in the Elite 8 versus Arizona, the demolishing of a good Louisville team in the Final Four.


But of course, that title game, which was still there for the taking in the final minute, despite…shooting 14-40 from 3 and James Augustine fouling out in just 9 minutes. Yes, magical season, bullshit ending.


Augustine and Dee Brown came back to lead a team that was ranked in the top ten in March, and really should have been a #3 seed, but got a #4 seed instead. Then they played like a team that didn’t even deserve that underseeding. Brown and Augustine, the winningest duo in school history, went out in the second round, at the hands of Washington.


Lost a really ugly, dull, low-scoring game to Virginia Tech that they had all but wrapped up. Illinois had a double digit lead in the second half, but fell 54-52 because they couldn’t make a free throw to save their lives. Would have accomplished the famous #12 over #5 too, had they won.


By this point the program was in severe decline, and Illinois followed up losing as a #12 to a #5 by losing as a #5 to a #12 (Western Kentucky) in back to back tourney appearances.

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Finally! Another “upset” as Illinois beat the #8 while a #9, with the victim being good old friend Lon Kruger and UNLV. However, the fun didn’t last long, as KU knocked Illinois out again, in you guessed it, round two.



Of the 18 tournament appearances we recapped here, Illinois got eliminated in the second round in eight, including this one. However, when #7 seed Illinois had #2 seed Miami right where they wanted them in the final stretch, a very controversial call went against them and turned the tide.

It even became known as the “Illinois Rule.”


Regardless of the result of tomorrow’s Big Ten Tournament title game, Illinois will almost certainly be granted a #1 seed, which will mark the fourth time in school history.

Selection Sunday is tomorrow, and that means we’ll see the bracket reveal in a matter of just hours.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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