The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season. It is the 33rd trip to college basketball’s “Big Dance” for the Fighting Illini. The Illini have had several unforgettable March Madness moments. However, they have also had some moments that make fans want to pull their hair out. Let’s look at some of the best and worst moments in Fighting Illini NCAA Tournament history.
And you can bet on them in Illinois, but only at one of the state’s retail sportsbooks. Betting on in-state teams via one of the seven Illinois online sports betting apps is not allowed under state law.
Illinois enters with a 20-12 record. They are the No. 9 seed in the West Regional and will face the No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday in the first round.
Worst Illini moment: April 1, 1989 – Final Four loss to Michigan
The 1988-89 Illini team may have been one of the most talented teams ever assembled in school history. The squad, known as the “Flying Illini,” included all the essential pieces from the 1987-88 squad (Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson and others).
The Fighting Illini advanced to the Final Four in Seattle, where they faced Michigan, a team they had beaten twice already in conference play. After 33 lead changes, the game was tied at 81. Michigan guard Sean Higgins rebounded a missed three-pointer with two seconds left and nailed a putback to give Michigan the 83-81 lead. The Wolverines’ Glen Rice then intercepted the Illini’s length-of-the-court inbounds pass as time expired.
This was a rough one for Illini fans. This was Illinois’ fourth trip to the Final Four, and this team had the talent to win it all. Losing a game like this was a heartbreaker.
Best: March 26, 2005: Comeback win over Arizona to advance to Final Four
Let’s discuss the 2004–05 Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team. Along with the ’88-’89 squad, this team is in the discussion as arguably the best team ever assembled at the university. The Illini tied the all-time NCAA record for victories in a season with 37 wins en route to a 37–2 record.
They were led by a three-guard starting lineup featuring Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. But to make it to the Final Four, the Illini had their hands full with the Arizona Wildcats in the Elite Eight.
With just 4 minutes left in regulation, the Illini trailed the Wildcats by 15. What followed was a series of amazing events for Illinois. The Illini cut the lead to three in a furious rally sparked by three-pointers and steals. They remained in full-court press mode when they stole the ball again, which led to Williams nailing another three-pointer. This is arguably the biggest shot in Illinois basketball history.
The Illini didn’t let up in overtime, building a 90-84 lead. They were able to hold off a late rally from the Wildcats to win the game 90-89 in overtime and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1989.
Best and worst: April 4, 2005: Championship loss to UNC
Bruce Weber’s team had a major battle awaiting them in the championship game against Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Both teams featured players that would become first-round picks in the NBA Draft.
UNC dominated the first half, building a 40-27 lead at halftime. But the Fighting Illini fought back once again, tying the game at 70. However, North Carolina would come back as Marvin Williams tapped back a Rashad McCants missed shot to put North Carolina back in front. Illinois would get several cracks to take the lead but could not convert. Eventually, Raymond Felton was able to steal the ball from Luther Head, forcing Deron Williams to foul. However, Felton converted on one of two free throws giving Illinois one last chance. Head’s potential game-tying three-pointer bounced high and out and went into the hands of Felton, who, this time, connected on both free throws to give North Carolina a 75–70 victory.
This was one of the more memorable championship games in recent memory. Two No. 1 seeds with NBA talent on the floor. While this will leave a bad taste in the mouths of some Illini fans, it was a wildly successful season for this team. In 2014, Sports Illustrated voted the 2005 Illinois team as the best ever not to win a national title.
Worst: March 18, 2006: Blown 11-point lead to Washington
Unfortunately, the Illini would be the victim of a blindside this time around. With Williams and Head drafted in the NBA, it was Dee Brown’s show. He led the team to the No. 4 seed in the Washington, D.C., Regional side of the bracket.
During a second-round matchup with the No. 5 seed Washington Huskies, The Illini jumped out to an 11-point lead in the second half. But Huskies’ Brandon Roy helped lead the charge, giving Washington a three-point lead with six seconds left to go in the game.
With one last heave, Brown launched a three-pointer and bounced off the back iron, giving Washington the win, 67-64.
The Illini were not the favorites heading into the tournament this season. However, had they won this game, there could have been a path for a back-to-back trip to the Final Four. They would have taken on a UConn team that would eventually lose to a cinderella George Mason team in the Elite Eight.
Worst: March 21, 2021: Upset by Loyola-Chicago
Getting upset by a lower-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament is hard enough. It gets worse when that time is a smaller school in the same state. It gets even worse than that when the game is a blowout.
In 2021, the Fighting Illini faced off against the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers in the second round. The Ramblers are no strangers to tournament upsets after their improbable run to the Final Four in 2018.
This game was a no-contest. The Rambles held onto a comfortable lead from start to finish winning the game 71-58. The Illini couldn’t hit their threes and turned the ball over 17 times. The No. 1 seeded Illinois team was thoroughly outplayed by Loyola-Chicago.
The Illinois men’s basketball program looks to be in the middle of an uptick. They finished the season with a record of 20–12 and qualified for their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Could they bring us some March Madness magic this time around? We’ll have to wait and see.