CHAMPAIGN — Illinois had a full 24 hours to wait and see if all it did during the regular season — capped by Saturday’s regular season-finale win against Purdue — was enough to land one of the top four national seeds for the NCAA tournament.
Turns out it was.
Beating the Boilermakers was a 10th Top 25 victory for Illinois (28-3) and its 13th straight win to end the regular season as the bookend to a perfect 14-0 run through nonconference play. That résumé was bolstered by a No. 4 RPI ranking and set the Illini up to host through the regional round should they keep winning.
The suspense was largely eliminated when the NCAA announced the top four seeds alphabetically a half-hour before the selection show, but that didn’t eliminate all of the surprises. Illinois ultimately wound up with the No. 3 overall seed and will face Eastern Michigan at 7 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at Huff Hall as its quest for six more wins and the first national championship in program history begins.
"I think we deserved it the way we kind of went through the Big Ten this year — a lot of close matches — but we came out on top," Illinois coach Chris Tamas said. "That’s a big deal in our conference. We’ll be ready for any challenge thrown in front of us. There’s no easy round once you get into the tournament."
Even if the wait to find out its NCAA tournament fate required a bit of patience given the will they/won’t they nature of getting a top-four seed — particularly after Nebraska didn’t get one a year ago despite a similar run at the end of the season — the alternative was certainly less desirable.
"It’s crazy to think two years ago (the Senior Night win) would have been our last match," Illinois senior setter Jordyn Poulter said. "We’re just in a completely different headspace than we were, and it’s a lot more fun to be in this headspace knowing we were fighting for a top-four seed instead of trying to scrape into the tournament. It’s incredible to see the progress of the program, and it’s been really fun to be a part of."
Illinois’ path back to national prominence has been quick after missing out on the NCAA tournament in 2016. Tamas’ first season saw the Illini advance to the Sweet 16 once again a year ago. Now their sights are set on something more as one of the recognized elite teams in the country.
"It’s a great turnaround, I’d say," senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli said with a laugh. "Two years ago we were in a very different situation all around really. We’re a completely different team. We’ve got a new staff and new people and a different mentality, and I think the tournament is going to be really good for us.
"It doesn’t really matter who we play from here on out. It’s about us. I think we just need to get into practice (today) and have an even more driven mentality that it’s lose and you’re out now. You can’t take games for granted at this point."
Playing at Huff Hall in the NCAA tournament gives the Illini the opportunity to double down — maybe even triple down if they keep winning — on consecutive sellouts against No. 7 Penn State and No. 12 Purdue in the final two home matches of the regular season. Drawing that 4,152 capacity crowd back in the building is certainly the goal.
"I saw the pictures (Saturday) night you and others posted about people lining up outside the door," Tamas said. "That’s obviously the excitement that you want. We’re getting great responses from recruits about it as well, and we look to keep that going.
"You can never plan for those things, but we know winning gets people in the gym, and we’ve been able to do that. The crowd’s been awesome, and that’s really fueled us through the end part of the season where it does get to a grind in the Big Ten."
Huff Hall has regularly provided a certain level of home court advantage for Illinois. The last two crowds have only added to that. The players feel it.
"Come one, come all," Bastianelli said. "We need Huff rocking as usual. Sellouts would be great. The atmosphere is amazing for us every time. I think some teams don’t get crowds like that — home or away — so it could definitely be to our advantage and maybe get some teams out of their element just with the atmosphere alone."