CHAMPAIGN – For the first time in over a decade, it’s a “three-peat” for the program when it comes to “March Madness.’

Yet it’s a bit different than the past few years when Illinois was coming into the NCAA Tournament off conference championships of some sort. The Illini got a No. 1 seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament in 2021 then got a fourth seed after winning the conference regular season championship in 2022.

This year, Brad Underwood’s team has a No. 9 seed as they get ready to take part in the West Region of the Division I men’s basketball tournament. They’ll face eighth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. central time in Des Moines, facing a tremendous challenge just to get out of the opening round.

Should they do so, top-seeded Kansas is likely waiting for them in the second round, making for a difficult road for the Illini to snap an 18-year Sweet 16 drought.

It’s put Illinois in the underdog role heading into another NCAA Tournament, but it’s not like Underwood is taking anything away from the team’s accomplishment in a 20-12 season.

“There’s a sense of anxiety to hear your name called, and it’s a day that I personally never take for granted and I hope none of our players do,” said the head coach, who has dealt with an interesting 2022-2023 season.

Illinois has some landmark wins early, like victories over now No. 2 seeds UCLA and Texas, but then had an inconsistent Big Ten season. Major wins and a few streaks were followed by difficult performances that led to an 11-9 conference record then a quick exit from the Big Ten Tournament at the hands of Penn State, who beat the Illini three times.

For many, the Illini will have difficulty getting out of the game against the Razorbacks, a team that like then has shown great moments along with forgettable ones in a 20-13 season.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot to prove,” said guard Terrence Shannon Jr. “Even when we got our name called (CBS analyst) Jay Wright said he had Arkansas over us. That’s already a chip that we have on our shoulder, just proving to people that we belong here.”

The chance to do so has come for the Illini, who are hoping to surprise a few people over the next few weeks.