It's everyones favorite time of year. The sweet smell of fresh ink on printer paper sweeps through towns all across America as everyone tries to concoct the perfect bracket. There's a beauty of uncertainty, along with the excitement of knowing that you can literally sit down and watch college basketball all day for at least a couple of days and nobody will question it.
As an Illinois fan, this March has kind of a different feeling to it. The past 2 years, Illinois had major expectations. In 2021, many people expected them to make the Final Four, or even to win the title. Last year, they were expected to make a run to at least the Sweet Sixteen. Obviously, neither of those really worked out...
That game was only mildly (majorly) infuriating.
This year though, the Illini honestly have no expectations. They go in to this game against Arkansas as 2.5 point underdogs, and even though they have a talented enough roster to do real damage in this tournament, their awful inconsistencies all year have tortured fans to the point of expecting absolutely nothing from this team. And honestly, it's kind of fun.
This season is maybe the most connected I've ever actually felt to a team. Maybe it has to do with the ridiculous emotional highs and lows that I've experienced this season. I somehow developed a hatred for Penn State basketball, which I did not even know was possible until this season. On the flip side though, I've been able to brag about the Illini beating 2 seeded Texas and 1 seeded UCLA... before the new year.
Even with the bad losses (and there have been SO MANY), I still have an extremely weird confidence going in to this game. Maybe it was Brad Underwood's plan all along to coast through the regular season, develop the freshman, and be ready to go come tourney time? Probably not, but it's fun to think of it as a possibility.
One super exciting aspect of this team is that they actually have legitimate tournament experience at multiple key positions. Terrance Shannon and Matthew Mayer have both played in title games before, along with other deep runs for each. Coleman Hawkins was a key factor on last years team that lost second round to Houston, but he had a game winning block against Chattanooga to even get them through the first round.
They also have multiple role players with experience, such as RJ Melendez and Luke Goode, both of whom were part of the rotation last tournament, and both of whom played well. I mean, who knows what would have happened if this RJ dunk wasn't called a technical:
Yes, this team has a lot of first year college players playing huge minutes, such as Jayden Epps, Ty Rodgers, Dain Dainja, and Sencire Harris. But other than Epps, who has shown he can star in the spotlight, this team is not going to be relying on players with no tournament experience to lead way like they did in previous years. The offense will run through Shannon, Mayer, and Hawkins, as it has all year, 3 experienced players who have done it before.
We've all seen what this team can do. They have maybe the two best non-conference wins in all of college basketball. They also have some of the most ridiculous second half comebacks I have ever seen, most recently against Purdue, where down 21 at half, they somehow managed to storm back and tie the game up, eventually losing after some iffy calls down the stretch, not to be a homer.
If they can manage to put together 2 good halves, I think they can get through Arkansas. And if they can do that, anything can happen. I mean c'mon, it's March Madness, have a little optimism Illini Nation!