Illini have been waiting for this chance at NCAA glory
In the history of Illinois basketball, the shining moments have never been guaranteed.
The school's Final Four trips have been well spaced. There was the 1952 squad led by Johnny "Red" Kerr, the 1989 Flying Illini, and the 2005 squad with Deron Williams and Dee Brown that lost in the final to North Carolina. The next Final Four trip is never right around the corner.
And this year's group has learned firsthand to take nothing for granted. The Fighting Illini should have made their return trip to the NCAA Tournament last season, for the first time since 2013, but the pandemic had other plans. So this year's bubble in Indianapolis doesn't seem so bad.
"Being able to walk on a court that says March Madness (at Wednesday's practice), I thought that was very exciting," senior guard Trent Frazier said. "That's what we've been working toward for four years. It was special, everyone was recording videos. It's a very fun time for us right now."
Illinois heads into the tourney as a No. 1 seed and the Big Ten Conference tournament champion. The Illini will face No. 16 Drexel Friday (12:15 p.m., TBS) at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
Does it matter that Illinois has no players with any NCAA Tournament experience? Coach Brad Underwood has been to the tourney four times with Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State, posting a 2-4 record.
"We've talked about since early January, you've got to win six and you've got to bring it mentally every single day, and if you don't, you go home," Underwood said. "It's really that simple.
"The same focus goes on the first game as it would the last. We've really tried to simplify it that way. I told our team, 'Everybody here's good and they know how to win.' No one wants it more than anyone else."
Having a great player always helps, particularly if it's a guard that can score. Earlier this week, Illini junior Ayo Dosunmu was named national player of the year by USA Today. The 6-2 Chicago native averaged 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
"He's built for this," Underwood said. "There's nobody I've been around that's probably more built for these opportunities than he is and yet, he doesn't have to be whole load. He's got a lot of other good players. There's no doubt in my mind he'll be terrific and he'll definitely be ready.
"This is a young man that would probably be a millionaire had he gone (pro last year) and he came back for this moment. You know that he's going to shine."
Drexel had an unusual year. Picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Conference before the season, the Dragons were forced into a pair of three-week breaks due to health protocols. They were sidelined for most of February.
When they came back from the second long break, the Dragons beat regular-season champ James Madison, then won three straight to win the conference tournament.
Underwood called Drexel point guard Camren Wynter an elite player. He averaged 16.8 points, 5.3 assists and shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range. The Dragons' other high scorer is 6-8 James Butler (12.9 points, 9.2 rebounds).
There are a couple of local connections on Drexel's roster. Sixth man Matey Juric, a native of Canada, spent two years of high school at Lake Forest Academy and sophomore center T.J. Bickerstaff is the grandson of former Bulls assistant Bernie Bickerstaff.
For what it's worth, the Ken Pomeroy ratings say Drexel should be seeded higher. KenPom has Drexel ranked No. 145, ahead of eight teams seeded 15 or 16 in the tournament.
After needing overtime to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, Underwood said three days of quarantine in Indianapolis is exactly what his players needed.
"It's been great, guys slept, rested. We did nothing," he said.
For a few days, at least, Illinois' next NCAA Tournament game was guaranteed.