INDIANAPOLIS – The moment is five days short of eight years, but it’s felt like an eternity for fans of the orange and blue.
March 24, 2013 was the last time that Illinois fans got to experience “March Madness” when they faced second-seeded Miami in Austin, Texas. John Groce’s Illini, who got to the tournament as a seventh-seed thanks to a great second half of the season, competed with the favored Hurricanes but eventually fell 63-59.
It would be the high point of the Groce era, as they’d fail to make the tournament from then till his firing after the 2017 season. Brad Underwood needed time to get the Illini back on track, but still the tournament drought continued.
Finally, after just short of a decade, the day has arrived for Illinois to go dancing again.
On Friday, as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, the Illini will face Drexel in their first NCAA Tournament game since they walked off the floor in Austin back in 2013. The moment should have come a year ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the tournament to be canceled before selections could be made.
For a success-starved fan base, it’s a joyous moment in time. Since their loss to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game, the Illini have rarely been in the conversation to win the school’s first title. The highest seed the school has had since was a No. 4 seed in 2006 with a few of the remaining core players from the Final Four team.
They’ve got just three total NCAA Tournament wins since 2005 and each has come in the first round of play.
Getting that milestone is considered one step in what many hope is a run by a talented, unified group to their first national championship in school history. Naismith award finalist Ayo Dosunmu hopes to forever set his place in Illini athletics history as he plays in his final stretch for the school.
Kofi Cockburn will look to do the same as he likely heads to the NBA after the tournament, while senior Trent Frazier hopes his long journey since his start under Groce will finish strong. Da’Monte Williams is in that same category, while youngsters Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller hope to make their freshman year a championship one.
Tipoff is at 12:15 PM on Friday for what it’s hoped to be a two-and-a-half week stay in Indianapolis. Playing on April 5th is the goal, but the game that Illinois will play on March 19th is special, too.
After eight years, at last, Illinois players and fans fan finally enjoy the “madness.”