Illini underdogs in tourney rich with upsets

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

History will be on the Illini’s side when they travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament this weekend.

Since the tournament’s inauguration in 1998, no team in the conference has had more success in it than Illinois. The Illini have the most wins (18), best winning-percentage (69.2) and most title-game appearances (5). They are also tied with Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State for the most tournament titles (2).

But this season, the Illini will enter the postseason as an underdog, a role they have only been in once in the tournament’s 10 years.

“Hopefully, we’ll get teams that underestimate us,” senior forward Shaun Pruitt said. “A lot of the top teams know they are already in (the NCAA Tournament), and we are going to be playing like our backs are against the wall. That’s the mindset we have to have.”

The only other time Illinois has been the lower-seed in a first-round matchup was in 1999. That season the Illini finished last in the conference and were given the tournament’s 11 seed.

The Illini then went on the tournament’s most improbable run to date, pulling upsets in three straight games to reach the championship game, where they lost to eventual Final Four team Michigan State.

Former Illini player Sergio McClain, who was on the 1999 team that made the run to the tournament title game, talked to the team earlier this week about that team’s experience and trying to make a similar run this year.

Head coach Bruce Weber said this year’s team has to get past the first round to even think about a run but believes that playing as the underdog could help.

“If you have a chip on your shoulder and play a little more carefree it can help you,” Weber said. “I hope they go in with confidence, and if you have some of that will to win it could give us an advantage.”

This year’s tournament bracket features an eerie resemblance to last year’s field.

Last season, the Illini defeated Penn State in the tournament’s opening round and moved on to play Indiana. Illinois then knocked off the Hoosiers en route to a semifinal appearance.

Once again, this year the Illini will meet Penn State in the opening round with another Indiana team, No. 17 Purdue, awaiting the victor.

“Last year, there was no guarantee we were going to get in the tournament and we were a bubble-team; this year we know we have to win,” Pruitt said. “If we play at the level we played last year we should be OK. We just have to have a lot of mental toughness.”

The team knows that whoever it plays is going to be fighting for their NCAA Tournament life or a better seed.

“At this point it doesn’t matter who we play,” senior forward Brian Randle said. “We’re all trying to get into the NCAA Tournament. The motivation and intensity level will be different. It’s really like a new season. We’re going to give it everything we have and try to make a run and hopefully upset some people.”

While Illinois hasn’t fared as well when in the Big Ten tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (3-3) compared to when the tournament has been held at the United Center in Chicago (15-5), the Illini are confident heading to Indianapolis and realize they need to win to keep even the NIT a possibility.

“It’s been a long and frustrating season, but now we have one more chance,” Weber said. “It’s the last chance to make something positive happen. Obviously, it’s not going to be easy but crazy things have happened.”

If all the positive history in the tournament doesn’t help the Illini gain more confidence going into the tournament, the coaches and players need to look no further than at what the women’s basketball team accomplished last weekend in Indianapolis as an underdog, making it all the way to the tournament’s title game as a No. 9-seed before losing at the final buzzer.

“The women have definitely given us a good example of what can happen with their success last weekend,” Weber said, “so it’s possible, but we have to have the right mind set. Hopefully, the women’s tournament will be a model for ours.”