CHICAGO – The madness is officially underway, and there are two teams from the State of Illinois taking part in the men’s NCAA Tournament this week.
That’s Illinois and Northwestern, who are in the 68-team field for the “Big Dance” that is getting underway for both teams this Thursday. It’s the first time that’s ever happened, since the Wildcats previously only made the tournament in 2017, when the Illini didn’t make the field.
One of the teams is enjoying a storybook season, while another is back in the tournament for a third-straight year, but it is now in the underdog role
Here’s what to look for from the Illini and the Wildcats in the 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament.
Illinois – 9th Seed – West Region
OPENING ROUND GAME – Thursday vs No. 8 Arkansas – 3:30 p.m. -TBS – Des Moines, Iowa
2022-2023 Record – 20-12, 11-9 in the Big Ten
NUMBER OF TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES – This is the 33rd time that Illinois has appeared in the NCAA Tournament. The program has five Final Four appearances and one appearance in the National Championship game (2005).
THE SITUATION – While its three-straight appearance for Illinois in the NCAA Tournament, 2023 feels decidedly different for head coach Brad Underwood’s team. An inconsistent regular season, one that featured tremendous wins and forgettable losses, has the Illini playing an underdog role as they head to Des Moines. Even if they can get by Arkansas, who has struggled with similar consistency issues, they would likely have to face top-seeded Kansas in the next round. That doesn’t bode well for a program hoping to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 18 years.
THEY SAID IT –Underwood on the approach of his team before the NCAA Tournament: “Belief. You gotta believe you can win. You gotta come here and it’s zero-zero. Everything you do to this point is to get you to this point. You know, the 20-game grind of a Big Ten season and sell-out crowds in every venue, the familiarity is now completely different. We’re in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s a new team, it’s a different team, it’s a different style, it’s a different name we don’t hear every time we turn on a TV. There is a sense of excitement with that. I also want our players to understand that you’ve got to enjoy this moment.
Northwestern – 7th Seed – West Region
OPENING ROUND GAME – Thursday vs No. 10 Boise State – 6:35 p.m. – TruTV – Sacramento, California
2022-2023 RECORD – 21-11, 12-8 in the Big Ten
NUMBER OF NCAA TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES – This is Northwestern’s second appearance in the men’s NCAA Tournament. They also made it in 2017 and an eighth seed, defeating Vanderbilt in the first round before losing to Gonzaga in Salt Lake City.
THE SITUATION – This has been a historic year for head coach Chris Collins and the Wildcats after five-straight losing seasons. Northwestern finished second in the Big Ten for the first time since the 1958-1959 season and broke the school record for conference wins. Chase Audige and Boo Buie have led the resurgence of the program with strong play at the guard spot as the group surpassed all preseason expectations. With two wins in Sacramento, the Wildcats would advance to their first “Sweet 16” in program history.
THE SAID IT – Buie on playing for Collins this season after his job appeared to be in jeopardy after five-straight losing seasons: “I think just in the seniors alone, in the guys returning with this group, along with the coaches, we kind of just banded together and decided we were going to create something that was super special, that no one on the outside looking in thought would be possible. From the moment the season ended last year until where we are now, Coach has kind of just made the statement of this is who we are, this is what we do, we’re going to do anything we have to do to prove people wrong. You know, it wasn’t we’re playing for him or he’s coaching for himself. It was just a collective group effort of we’re going to do this thing. That’s what happened.”