NCAA Division: Division I
Conference: Big Ten
Past Conferences: Western
City: Champaign, IL
Stadium: State Farm Center
NCAA Tournaments: 1949, 1951, 1952, 1963, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2021, 2022
National Championships: None
Conference Titles: 3
The Fighting Illini have been playing in the Big Ten since 1905, joining what was then called the Western Conference and reaching the 20-win mark in just their third season. There was an unbeaten team in 1914-15, a co-Big Ten crown in 1935, and a great campaign in 1941-42 that resulted in the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The following season, with a lineup that featured a talented collection known as the “Whiz Kids,” Illinois was ranked No. 1 in the country. However, three of those star players were drafted into World War II and the team declined an invitation to the tournament.
Those early teams established a winning culture in Champaign that reached another level after the war under Harry Combes, who was the town’s high school coach before taking over in 1947. Three of his first five teams went to the NCAA Tournament and all three reached the Final Four.
While still competitive, the program only had one NCAA Tournament appearance in the 1960s and none in the 1970s. A watershed moment in the Illini’s history came when Lou Henson became head coach in 1975, taking over following back-to-back losing seasons in which the team was a combined 13-36.
Henson would win a school-record 421 games with Illinois, while guiding the team to 12 NCAA Tournaments. His first standout team in 1980-81 featured a senior in Eddie Johnson and a freshman in Derek Harper, two guards who would both eventually play exactly 1,199 games in the NBA.
Best Team Yet
NCAAB odds were looking up for the Illini, who were a No. 4 seed that year. A second-round upset at the hands of Kansas State ended the run, but Henson began a string of eight consecutive NCAA Tournament berths in 1983. The 1984 squad won the Big Ten in the regular season and raced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed before falling to Kentucky.
There were two NCAA Tournament wins the following year, and single victories in the event in 1987 and 1988, before Henson put together the program’s best team yet in 1988-89.
Featuring an athletic bunch led by future NBA standouts Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle and Kendall Gill, the Illinois Fighting Illini team stats that season displayed an impressive 86.4 points per game. It was ranked in the top 10 all year -including No. 1 for a week in January- after opening 16-0.
The Illini finished the regular season with three straight wins over teams ranked in the top 15 and won four straight in the NCAA Tournament to get to the national semifinals against conference rival Michigan. The Wolverines fell to Illinois twice during the regular season by an average of 14 points, but the third time was a charm for them, thanks to a last-second basket by Sean Higgins.
The Illini had fallen just short of a title game appearance, and the program then went through a handful of years with relatively mediocre results. Henson gave way to Lon Kruger in the mid-1990s, and the latter led his second team to a co-Big Ten regular-season title in 1998.
Flirting With Perfection
Bill Self, who would later guide Kansas to multiple NCAA titles, had a three-year run in which the Illini averaged 26 wins, laying the groundwork for perhaps the best teams in program history.
When Bruce Weber took over for Self in 2003, he inherited a loaded roster that included star guards Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. That first Weber squad won its final 10 games of the regular season to claim the Big Ten crown and won two games in the NCAA Tournament before falling to top-seeded Duke.
In 2004-05, with the guard trio averaging a combined 41.7 points per game, Illinois flirted with perfection. It won its first 29 games before losing the finale of the regular season to Ohio State, only to carve up all three of its opponents in the Big Ten tourney. The team was an easy No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Illini rolled through their first three opponents in the Big Dance and then pulled off a furious comeback to knock off Arizona in overtime to get to the Final Four. After a win over Louisville, Illinois was unable to overcome early foul trouble and some cold shooting in a title game loss to North Carolina.
Illinois has made it to the NCAA Tournament seven times since then but never has it won more than one game in the event in that span. Brad Underwood took over as head coach before the 2017-18 season and endured two losing campaigns and one COVID-stunted year before getting the program back into the national picture the past two seasons.
In 2020-21, the Illini were second in the Big Ten before winning the conference tourney and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Last season’s squad, led by All-Big Ten First Team performer Kofi Cockburn, tied for first place in the Big Ten. It suffered a second-round loss to Houston in the Big Dance but betting odds have the Illini among the league’s favorites for 2022-23.
Deon Thomas: 2,129
Kiwane Garris: 1,948
Malcolm Hill: 1,846
James Augustine: 1,023
Mike Davis: 909
Kofi Cockburn: 861
Bruce Douglas: 765
Demetri McCamey: 733
Dee Brown: 674
Lou Henson: 421
Harry Combes: 316
Bruce Weber: 210
What Is the Highest Win Total in Program History?
It’s not even close. The 2004-05 Illini went 37-2 in their run to the national title game. The 37 victories are tied for the second-most in Division I history.
What Was the Worst Season in Program History?
The worst winning percentage in the modern era came in 1973-74, when Illinois went 5-18 and finished last in the Big Ten. The most losses in program history were 21, which came in 2018-19.
Who Is the Greatest Player in Program History?
He didn’t have the pro career of backcourt mate Deron Williams, Nick Anderson, Eddie Johnson, Kendall Gill, or Derek Harper, but Dee Brown had the biggest impact on the program.
Twice an All-Big Ten first-team performer and the conference’s player of the year in 2005, Brown ranks in the top four in program history in points, assists, steals, and 3-pointers. A consensus first-team All-American in 2006, Brown led the Illini to a 114-23 record in his four years, which included a trip to the national title game in 2005.