Bob Asmussen | All of a sudden, Illini back in contention for NCAA title

May 22—CHAMPAIGN — Well, the underdog role didn't last very long for the Illinois men's golf team.

After being humbled by a second-place finish to Northwestern at last month's Big Ten tournament, Mike Small's Illini blew the doors off the field at last week's Stanford Regional.

The team's 36-under-par finish was the best of any of the six regional winners.

The NCAA championships start Friday at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa (North Course) in Carlsbad, Calif.

While Illinois isn't the favorite in the 30-team field, it certainly has the ability to bring home the program's first national title trophy.

A year ago, a veteran team led by current PGA Tour regular Adrien Dumont de Chassart reached the match-play portion of the tournament before bowing out with a close quarterfinal loss to Florida State.

This year, Illinois enters as the No. 11 seed in a loaded field.

"Rankings are out the window. Past tournaments are out the window. World golf rankings are out the window," Small said Tuesday afternoon inside the team's facility off St. Mary's Road before it departed for California. "It's who can come together and be ready to play relaxed, confident. I like our chances. I like where we're at. We could scare some people. When we're good, we're really good."

His top player, Big Ten Golfer of the Year Jackson Buchanan, agrees.

"We all drive it well and we all putt it well," he said. "That's super important, putting pressure on the player. Match play is fun. If you are just reckless enough, you'll find your way to a national championship."

Perennial golf power Illinois had struggled to reach its potential during the season. The regional performance was what Small had been looking for from his team.

"We talked about that (Tuesday morning) actually at practice," Small said. "If you get tired of Coach always on you and always telling you you've got to do this, the way you stop that happening is do it correctly. And they did."

Small heard from other coaches at the regional, who told him the Illini looked more mature and hit the correct shots.

"When we got out of position, we got back into position and didn't make big numbers," Small said.

The team had only two double bogeys in 54 holes.

"They started to play Illinois golf," Small said. "Generally, when that happens and you play from strength and control your space, you actually exceed your expectations."

Did Small see the breakthrough coming?

"No," Small said. "I go into every event optimistic and thinking we're going to have a good one. We got off to such a good start."

The Illini were 14-under after the first nine holes of the event. That will work.

"We kept the momentum going," Small said. "The start last week was huge for us. We built some confidence out of it."

The right mix

After 10 days between regional play and the NCAA championships, Illinois wants to regain the momentum.

"That's the secret," Small said. "We've got to get our 'good' good enough so our 'average' is good enough to compete. That's always been the goal. We've gotten better this year."

The players tried to learn from the disappointment of the second-place finish in the Big Ten.

"We all put our heads down and grinded," Buchanan said. "We know what we've got to do and we stepped up at regionals."

It has been a long golf season. It started in the fall and continued into high-stress events in the spring.

"This time of year as a coach, I think you want to back off a little bit," Small said. "You don't have to talk so much. Don't confuse things. You have to have trust in your team. You have to have trust in your players."

Classes are done for the semester, so the players could practice all day. But Small wants them rested.

"You've got to pace yourself," he said.

Fresh start

During the fall, Small wisely took his team to play the Stanford course, thinking it might be sent there for the regional.

That wasn't an option for the NCAA championships in Carlsbad. The course has been completely rebuilt and was first played during the NCAA women's championships, which started last Friday and run through Wednesday.

"They blew it up," Small said. "We don't know much about it."

His team has a practice round scheduled for Thursday. Forecasts for the course 30 miles north of San Diego call for temperatures in the low- to mid-60s for most of the week.

"We've got one day to figure it out," Small said.

The good news is that none of the 30 teams will play the course ahead of time.

"New courses play different," Small said.

The championships open with three rounds of stroke play. The top-15 teams play a fourth round, which sets up the match-play quarterfinals.

Illinois has been a frequent participant in the final eight, with a best finish of second in 2013 during Small's highly successful tenure.

"It still comes down to beating your man," Small said. "You find out who is better that day. Match play is an inexact science. You've got to be strong. You can't wait for somebody else to do your job in match play."