Illinois Fighting Illini NCAA Tournament History for Millennials


dee brown

Big Ten regular-season champions Illinois (22-9) earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament South Region, and where they will face No. 13 seed Chattanooga (27- 7) in the first round Friday in Pittsburgh. Tip is at 5:50 p.m. CT and the game will be broadcast by TNT.

The Illini are making their 32nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and the second in a row after an 8-year drought. The Illini hold an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 41-32.

As a Generation Xennial, Half Gen-X/Half Millennial, Oregon Trail, my Illini fandom experience began in 1991, a few years before I enrolled in the school. Having had two of my three older sisters at the U of I, I know very well what happened before I decided to enroll in Illini Athletics.

However, for the purposes of this article, we are only going to review what I remember very well.

On this Sunday of selection, let’s stroll in the past.

nick anderson illini basketball lou henson


The Flyin’ Illini are a bit ahead of my time, but so much has been written and said about these guys, rightly so, I feel like I know their history pretty well. After all, Dick Vitale MUST mention them every time he calls an Illini game for any reason.

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

Kendall Gil


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


After two years on probation, thanks to Bruce Pearl (it’s one of a million reasons why he’s not a good human being), Illinois won as the No. 6 seed. No. 11 Long Beach State in Salt Lake City.

The joy didn’t last long as No. 3 seed Vanderbilt (yes, Vandy was once that good at basketball, surprisingly) blew them away in the second round.

deon thomas


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


Another cameo appearance as the Illini barely squeaked as No. 11 and was bounced by No. 6 seed Tulsa to Albany. The school’s all-time leading scorer, Thomas, and second all-time leading scorer, Kiwane Garris, teamed up for one season.

Lou Henson

In the combined seven years they were on campus, the pair sadly never saw the second weekend of the tournament. There are two overriding themes as you go through the history of the Illini NCAA Basketball Tournament – ​​a ton of second round/not reaching sixteen is the first.

The second is never pulling off a big upset/making a deep run as a bottom seed.

Hopefully one day it finally happens.



Probably the second-best team in the Big Ten that year behind Minnesota’s Final Four team once a generation, they beat USC, as No. 6 easily in the first round. (Distinctly remember Kam’s view of this one). Then came the infamous story of what would have motivated 14-seeded Tennessee-Chattanooga to knock them out in the second round.

The story goes that the thin locker room walls in the arena led to the Mocs hearing the Illini getting cocky and celebrating before the game even started. All Illinois had to do was beat two double-digit seeds and they would have made it to the Elite 8.

lon kruger oklahoma

UT-Chattanooga players reportedly heard Illini players humming the March Madness TV show theme song and exclaiming “we’re going to the Final Four”.

No one on Illini’s side claimed this story at the time. Like the guy at the end of Boys jersey said, ‘eh, you know everyone remembers things the way they want to cape!’


All five senior starters went 13-3 in the Big Ten and tied for the conference title. Rather disappointing that they couldn’t make it to sixteen given that fact.

However, Exree Hipp and No. 4 seed Maryland, then an ACC team, were just too much for fifth seed Illini in the second round.

illini basketball


From losing the No. 5 to No. 4 in the second round to dropping the No. 4 seed to the fifth seed in the second round in consecutive years. Are you ever bored and tired of the boredom of always losing in the second round?

At least this time the opponent (Florida Gators) went all the way to the title game.

frank williams


A truly special team that shared the conference title and earned a No. 1 seed, they made it through the first three rounds with ease. This included a 16 point victory over the blue blood program that would hire Bill Self.

Finally, on the second weekend for the first time ever, Illinois met Arizona for the third time this season in the Elite Eight. In the very rare three-game series between non-conference teams, the Wildcats won the rubber game.

Arizona won at Maui while Illinois emerged victorious at the United Center earlier this season.


Nearest Illinois never managed to score that big upset win in the tournament, as Kansas got their revenge on the previous year’s Illini. The Illini returned to the Sweet Sixteen, as the No. 4 seed, but lost by four to the Jayhawks in Madison.

This year, I have fond memories of Illinois winning big at the United Center, then a de facto home court, in the first two rounds.


Two more and too many toilets, this time at the hands of Notre-Dame, who at the time were really in a tournament crisis. It was an embarrassing loss for Illinois.



Illinois earns its first-ever upset victory since the start of the top-seeded era. No. 5 seed Illinois knocks out No. 4 Cincinnati, in a match that was part of an episode of MTV Newlyweds. Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees is a huge Cincy fan and cameras captured him watching his team go down 92-68.

Duke eliminated Illinois in the next round.


You already know the story of this season: national vice-champion, 37 victories (then a single record of the season), ranked n°1 almost all year, the Miracle of Mannheim in Elite 8 against Arizona, demolishing a good Louisville team in the Final Four.


But of course that title game, which was still there for the taking in the last minute, despite… a 14-40 shot from 3 and a foul by James Augustine in just 9 minutes. Yes, magic season, bullshit ending.


Augustine and Dee Brown returned to lead a team that was ranked in the top ten in March and really should have been a No. 3 seed, but got a No. 4 seed instead. Then they played like a team that didn’t even deserve that under the standings. Brown and Augustine, the winningest duo in school history, went out in the second round, at the hands of Washington.


Lost a really lousy, boring, low-scoring game against Virginia Tech that they had pretty much finished. Illinois had a double-digit lead in the second half, but lost 54-52 because they couldn’t make a free throw to save their life.

Would also have achieved the famous #12 out of #5 had they won.


By this point the program was in serious decline and Illinois continued to lose as a #12 to a #5 while losing as a #5 to a #12 (Western Kentucky) in consecutive tournament appearances.


Ultimately! Another “upset” as Illinois beat No. 8 when he was No. 9, the victim being good old friend Lon Kruger and UNLV.

The fun didn’t last long, however, as KU again knocked out, you guessed it, Illinois in the second round.



Of the 18 tournament appearances we’ve recapped here, Illinois has been knocked out in the second round in eight, including this one.

However, when No. 7 seed Illinois had No. 2 seed Miami right where they wanted them down the stretch, a hotly contested call went up against them and reversed the trend. She even became known as the “Illinois Rule.”

Illini fans are paranoid that the referees are all out to get them…for a reason.


As owners of the Big Ten Tournament title (for the third time in Illini history) and No. 1 seed (for the fourth time in school history), it has been a year of Final Four type or bust. Again, the Illini didn’t even make it into the second weekend. (You sense a theme here?!)

How did Loyola pull off the big surprise? We had an exclusive with Drew Valentine, the Ramblers new head coach and then assistant, who gave us the inside scoop.


A Big Ten regular season co-title preceded a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament collapse/extinction. Where will this go?

Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America”, as well as “No I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons From A Lifetime In The Sports Media Industry.”

He has appeared regularly in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Grandstand, and co-hosts the After Extra Time podcast. follow him to Twitter and Instagram.


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