State of Illinois basketball: Any NCAA Tournament contenders out there?

So much has changed in college sports.

With the transfer portal, athletes are switching schools at a dizzying pace.

Head coaches at high-profile major programs still make millions more the anyone else on campus, but the paying field has been balanced a bit with name, likeness and image (NIL) deals for athletes.

Conferences? About all you need to know on that front is the "Big Ten" has 14 members and the number will swell to 16 in 2024 when UCLA and USC officially join.

Fortunately, March Madness remains pretty much the same.

The NCAA Tournament is still the best path for lesser known schools to capture the nation's attention and bask in one of sports' brightest lights. Loyola University's run to the Final Four in 2018 is a perfect example.

Looking around the state as the college basketball season gets set to tip off, are any of these underdogs capable of breaking through?

Northern Illinois

The Huskies haven't participated in March Madness since 1996, when they competed in the long defunct Midwestern Collegiate Conference. Now in the Mid-American Conference, NIU has never won an NCAA Tournament game and doesn't appear capable of ending the 56-year drought this season.

The Huskies were picked last in the MAC preseason poll and they've gone 12-37 over the last two seasons.

With former DePaul guard Rashon Burno entering his second year as head coach, NIU will look to Keshawn Williams for production and leadership.

A junior guard from Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, Williams led the Huskies in scoring last season, averaging 16.3 points per game.

Northern Illinois gets started Monday with a home game against Illinois Springfield.

Illinois State

After a 10-year run, head coach Dan Mueller was fired late last season and replaced by interim coach Brian Jones.

Ryan Pedon is the Redbirds' new head coach, and the former Ohio State, Butler and Illinois assistant has plenty of work to do in Normal.

ISU has gone 14-40 in the Missouri Valley Conference over the last three seasons. Senior forward Kendall Lewis, who averaged 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last year, is the Redbirds' top returnee.

Illinois State's first game is Monday night at home vs. Western Illinois.


The Braves won 9 of their last 13 Missouri Valley Conference games before being bounced out of Arch Madness by Loyola in St. Louis.

Loaded with returning talent, Bradley is capable of making a run at the NCAA Tournament this year.

Junior forward Rienk Mast, one of four returning starters, averaged 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in 2021-22. Sophomore guard Connor Hickman and senior forward Ja'Shon Henry are two other players to watch.

The Braves tip off Monday night with a home game against Wisconsin-Parkside.

Western Illinois

The Leathernecks have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament and the streak is likely to continue this year.

Senior guard Trenton Massner is one of the Summit League's top players after averaging team-highs in points (16.4) and rebounds (6.2) per game last season.

Head coach Rob Jeter has to find some massive support after losing his next seven highest scorers behind Massner.

Eastern Illinois

After going 5-26 last year under first-year coach Marty Simmons, the Panthers will look to regroup and make some noise in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Freshman center Kyle Thomas, who led Benet Academy to a 22-7 record last season, is looking to make an immediate impact.

EIU opens the season Monday night at Illinois.

Bradley's Rienk Mast (51) heads to the basket as Loyola's Chris Knight (23) defends during a game last season. Mast, one of four returning starters for Bradley, averaged 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in 2021-22. Associated Press
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