AUSTIN, Texas — Tucked away in one corner of Illinois’ spacious locker room that normally houses the Texas basketball teams inside the Frank Erwin Center, Joseph Bertrand, Mike LaTulip and Kevin Berardini traded laughs as they conducted mock interviews using their smart phones.
In another corner, sophomore Nnanna Egwu whispered something in the direction of classmate Tracy Abrams that drew a laugh from the typically stoic point guard.
The Illini were minutes away from taking the court for a 40-minute practice session in front of a couple hundred fans Thursday. It was clear they were enjoying the moment — and hoping to make it last more than a few days.
But if recent history is an indication, it could be a short stay. The Illinois program has produced one NCAA tournament win (2011) since Dee Brown hung up his headband.
“For us to be that group that got it going with a couple wins in the tournament would be pretty special,” Abrams said.
The last time Illinois advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was in 2005, when Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head led the Illini to the national championship game.
Fifth-year senior Sam McLaurin is the only current Illini who had even walked across his junior high graduation stage yet.
The Illini are thirsty to end their eight-year Sweet 16 drought. So are some other programs playing in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Of the 39 teams in the field from major college basketball conferences — six BCS leagues, plus the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West — 26 have reached at least one Sweet 16 during the stretch the Illini have missed out.
“That’s something we’ve been talking about all year,” Bertrand said. “One of our biggest goals was to get into the tournament and then advance, and we’ve got a unique opportunity to do that.”
A few doors down, today’s opponent also is looking to make postseason strides.
Colorado is in the NCAA tournament for back-to-back seasons for the first time in 50 years. After a win last season against UNLV, the Buffaloes view anything short of winning at least two games this spring as a step back for their program.
“To set a high standard for the program, we can’t take a step back,” point guard Askia Booker said. “If we can advance another round this year, we’ll be fine.”
“We definitely have a vision for that. That is what we are building upon and trying to take a step forward,” forward Andre Roberson said. “I feel like we have been doing a good job of that so far, and we are going to try and take it to the next step every year. I feel like we can make it to the Sweet 16 and maybe even further.”
Illinois’ seniors have said throughout the season they want to leave a legacy. Just reaching the NCAA tournament a year after not receiving an invitation to the NIT is an accomplishment. So was winning the Maui Invitational.
But the NCAA tournament, starting with today’s game, is a chance to add on.
“I think we did a lot of good things this year to look back on as seniors regardless of the outcome (today),” Brandon Paul said. “We’re going to go out and compete; we’re not ready for it to be over yet.”
First-year UI coach John Groce, who was 2-0 in NCAA tournament openers as the coach at Ohio from 2008 to ’12, understands how important wins deep in March can be.
As far as the energetic 41-year-old coach is concerned, the momentum already has picked up in Year 1.
“They can continue to add; that roller coaster’s moving right now. You can add to the speed of that freight train by having a chance to survive and advance,” Groce said. “Nonetheless, I love the direction we’re going; now we’ve got to see if we can continue to piggyback what we’ve done late in the year.”
A long time coming: Illinois hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2005 — and it’s not been for a lack of trying. Staff writer JEFF HUTH’s look back at the current 0-for-4 run:
D.C. Regional (No. 4 seed)
at San Diego
Illinois 78, Air Force 69
Washington 67, Illinois 64
There would be no Final Four run this time, the Illini knocked out in the second round by a Washington team that rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit. The Huskies did their damage at the foul line, outscoring Illinois 28-9. Illini favorite son Dee Brown played all 40 minutes in his final collegiate game while contributing 15 points and a game-high six assists.
West Regional (No. 12 seed)
at Columbus, Ohio
Virginia Tech 54, Illinois 52
With just over four minutes left, the Illini led by 10 points. Then it all fell apart. Blame the offense, which did not score over the final 4:26. Deron Washington’s jumper gave the fifth-seeded Hokies a 53-52 lead, and A.D. Vassallo capped a 12-0 Tech run with a free throw. Nothing went right for Illinois on its final possession with 17 seconds left. A wild flurry began with Brian Randle’s missed three-pointer, but he grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Randle missed the first shot of a one-and-bonus, again corralled his own miss but then had the ball stolen from him as time ran out.
West Regional (No. 5 seed)
at Portland, Ore.
Western Kentucky 76, Illinois 72
The No. 5 vs. No. 12 pairing is notorious for upsets. The Illini became the 19th such victim in the last 21 years despite 24 points from Trent Meacham. His season-high output came in the absence of fellow senior guard Chester Frazier, sidelined by a hand injury that required surgery the week before. After falling behind by as many as 17 points, Illinois clawed back to within 74-72 on a Meacham layup with eight seconds left. Despite attempts to quickly foul, the Illini didn’t get the call until 0.9 second remained, and Anthony Salley sealed the outcome with two free throws.
Southwest Regional (No. 9 seed)
at Tulsa, Okla.
Illinois 73, Nevada-Las Vegas 62
Kansas 73, Illinois 59
What are the odds that Illinois would square off against two former Illini coaches in the same NCAA tournament? That was the scenario at the BOK Center, where Lon Kruger’s Rebels and Bill Self’s Jayhawks stood in the postseason way of Bruce Weber’s Illini. With Mike Davis scoring 22 points, Illinois led by as many as 25 points while hurdling UNLV 73-62. But top-seeded Kansas rode twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris — who combined for 41 points and 24 rebounds — to a 73-59 victory and a trip to the Sweet 16.