CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men’s basketball welcomed March with an homage to its past.
An iconic photo of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head recreated with Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and Trent Frazier. Because this isn’t just any March.
With Illinois entering the final week of the regular season as the No. 4 team in the nation, a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is a legitimate aspiration. A win Tuesday night at No. 2 Michigan would go a long way toward that goal. If not, a win Saturday at No. 7 Ohio State could help seal the deal, too.
“We’ve had a hell of a season so far, and we’re here to improve,” Illinois freshman guard Andre Curbelo said Monday. “That game is definitely going to be a statement game. We just have to go into Michigan with a killer mentality, like we’ve been having the past two games and trying get the job done. We’re playing for something bigger. It’s a bigger challenge, obviously, but we’re here for it. … We want it. Just bring them on.”
It’s fitting, then, that Monday’s homage was to the Dee-Deron-Luther era. One of the halcyon moments in program history. A level that the Illini have been chasing since.
That makes the current Illini’s national ranking rather notable. It’s the highest since the 2004-05 team had the top spot in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll that season.
To think, Illinois set a program record for most losses in a season just two years ago. That 12-21 mark in the 2018-19 season was, if not rock bottom, at least in the neighborhood.
Momentum for more started building last season with a nine-win turnaround but no final reward, with the NCAA tournament canceled in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Success has only grown this season, and that return to the NCAA tournament — what will be a first since 2013 — is now in sight.
“It’s just the process,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “There’s no timeframe on a process, really. You want it sooner than later, obviously, but there’s certain things you don’t rush. It takes everybody. It takes a great administration. It takes a great coaching staff. It obviously takes great players.
“We’ve been very fortunate in the recruiting game that we found guys that fit our character and fit our system. Then it can happen. It’s just the process. I’m excited about that because it’s where I believe this program should be and has the capability to be. Is it there every year? I hope so, but I think, overall, we’re laying a great foundation for the future.”
That the NCAA tournament is in sight a year after it was snatched away from an Illinois team set to break its seven-year tourney drought is all the Illini have been working toward this season. The “final chapter,” as Underwood calls it, is all they’ve talked about, and they’re feeling good knowing a top seed in the NCAA tournament is there for the taking.
“I think every coach in the country talks about March, and we all know it’s March Madness,” Underwood said. “Everybody has fought different battles. Every player’s had to make sacrifices, and now we’re getting closer to that finish line. For us, it’s a little different because we’ve been building, and we’ve been trying to get there.
“We didn’t get there last year. … That was taken from them last year. As we draw closer and nearer to that, absolutely, I think it means a lot to this team.”
Curbelo knows bits and pieces of Illinois basketball history. That the 2004-05 Illini outfit was an elite team is at that top of that list. The Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, native feels pretty good about his team, too.
“We’re just trying to do something like that or even better,” Curbelo said. “Personally, the team we have is capable of at least the Elite Eight. There’s no ceiling after that. After that, it’s either national championship or nothing.”
Wrapping up the regular season at Michigan and at Ohio State simply provides two more challenges along the way for an Illinois team thinking big. Curbelo called them both “statement games.”
“I love it,” the freshman guard continued. “That’s what I’m here for. I love the challenge. I love big stages, big teams. … I think if we come in mentally prepared and ready to go from the get go, I don’t think there’s any fatigue or tiredness that could stop us. When we’re mentally dialed in, we’re a very, very hard team to stop.”