In head coach John Groce's first season as the head man in Champaign, the Fighting Illini were selected as the seventh seed in the East region, opening their 2013 NCAA tournament experience this coming Friday.
Illinois missed March Madness in 2012, after winning one game during the 2011 tournament over UNLV before falling to Kansas. This leaves each player on the Illini roster having only played in two or zero career NCAA tournament contests.
With a senior-heavy lineup however, don't sleep on this Illinois team who have shocked the college basketball world time and time again in 2012-13. In a season where expectations were low, this up-and-down season could get even more exciting and unpredictable within the next few weeks.
Illinois opens Friday against 10th-seeded Colorado, who hails from the Pac-12. The Buffaloes are led by Andre Roberson, who averages a double-double at 10.9 points and 11.3 rebounds and stands as the nation's leading rebounder.
Roberson is a matchup nightmare for Illinois as he only stands 6'7" from the power forward position, Illinois' weakest slot. Expect Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry match up with Roberson, as both are much more capable rebounders than Tyler Griffey.
As a guard-heavy team, Illinois will need to hit the boards to keep Roberson and the athletic Buffs in check. Nnanna Egwu leads the Illini in rebounding, at 4.6 per game, followed closely by Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand at 4.4 and 4.2 rebounds, respectively.
As freshmen, DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul experienced the disappointment of having your bubble burst on Selection Sunday, as Illinois was selected as the top overall seed in the 2010 NIT. In 2011, the Illini got to the Big Dance, winning and losing one game apiece as stated previously.
In 2012, Illinois' late-season meltdown left them out of both the NCAA tournament and NIT. As seniors in 2013 though, Richardson, Paul, Tyler Griffey and fifth-year senior Sam McLaurin get their last chance to make an impression on this year's field of 68.
Illinois' likely third-round opponent in Austin, Texas is second-seeded Miami, who may think it was snubbed from receiving a No. 1 seed. No player on the Hurricanes roster has experienced playing in March Madness, giving the underdog Illini a slight advantage in the experience category.
Should Illinois get past the likely duo of Colorado and Miami in Austin, the Illini would then match up with either Butler or Marquette in the regional semifinal taking place in Washington D.C. In what seems like ages ago, Illinois, Butler and Marquette all took part in the 2012 Maui Invitational.
Though Illinois did not face off with the Golden Eagles, the Illini were able to take the court against the Bulldogs, whom the Illini defeated by 17 points in the tournament's championship game, capping an impressive 4-0 trip to Hawaii, where Illinois won the three Maui Invitational contests by a margin of 23.3 points.
Illinois also showed a sense of urgency in a one-and-done tournament this past week in Chicago during the Big Ten tournament. Illinois tied Minnesota on a DJ Richardson three-pointer with 44 seconds left, then forced a turnover which led to a Brandon Paul buzzer-beating fadeaway to advance to Friday's quarterfinals. There Illinois lost to top-seeded Indiana, though not for lack of effort.
Over the course of the season, Illinois was presented with numerous opportunities to knock off the nation's elite. Few teams ended the season with as many quality wins as Illinois, making them a dangerous out in a tournament that will take six consecutive victories to come out on top.
Illinois' quality wins consist of Butler and Minnesota on neutral courts, Gonzaga and Minnesota on the road, and Ohio State and Indiana at home. Illinois worst losses occurred against Northwestern and at Purdue, also leaving them as potential upset victims.
A third-round upset of Miami would certainly shock most, as the Hurricanes became the first team ever to come out of the ACC with both a regular-season and conference tournament title and not receive a first seed in the NCAA tournament.
A potential third contest with Indiana this season in the Elite Eight would be an intriguing story for all Big Ten fans, especially considering Tyler Griffey's heroics in the February upset in Champaign. Illinois fans would also love a Final Four matchup with Kansas, since Bill Self left for KU in 2003 after three seasons at U of I.
Only once has a seventh seed advanced to the Final Four, that being Virginia back in 1984. In a season of constant parity, who's to say that Illinois can not only advance to Atlanta for Final Four weekend, but even more win the entire national championship?
As previously mentioned, Illinois is senior heavy. Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Tyler Griffey are all seniors who have been in Illinois' rotation throughout their entire four-year careers. Joseph Bertrand is a redshirt junior, having come to Champaign as part of the same 2009 recruiting class with Paul, Richardson and Griffey.
Fifth-year senior Sam McLaurin is playing his lone season as a member of the Illini, having transferred from Coastal Carolina following the 2011-12 squad. The remainder of Illinois' rotation are sophomores, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Myke Henry.
Illinois has never won an NCAA tournament title, though it was close in 2005 before falling to North Carolina 75-70 in the final game, while also having a veteran ballclub. Here's to hoping the Illini can get back to the final game, though this time with a different result.