Illinois will be title hunting in Minneapolis

Mar. 15—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois will step onto the court at the Target Center for the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals Friday evening without the doubts of a bubble team.

There's no "win and you're in" pressure. The Illini are a lock for the NCAA tournament regardless of how Friday's game plays out. Same for any subsequent tournament game in Minneapolis.

All of the current bracketology projections have No. 13 Illinois (23-8) firmly on the No. 4 seed line for the NCAA tournament. A team like McNeese State or Samford a likely opponent somewhere — likely not all that close to home — in the first round.

Brad Underwood doesn't know how much his team can improve its NCAA tournament résumé this week in Minneapolis. The upside is the Illini will almost assuredly play only Quad I or Quad II games at the Target Center. No chance to take a bad loss. But also maybe not enough of an opportunity to climb to the No. 3 seed line, which projects as Illinois' NCAA tournament ceiling.

"I don't worry too much about it in terms of the seeding," Underwood said. "We've got 16s beating 1s now, so it's truly a crap shoot. I did get to see a lot of teams in some of the lower leagues — I truly appreciate those conference championships and games — and a lot of good teams. ... Selection Sunday is what it is. We'll figure out where we're at and where we're going."

Underwood has kept up a running dialogue with his team since last fall about how a season-long résumé is built. He discussed the importance of not taking a bad loss. There was also discussion about the importance of the margin of victory and how pushing for 40 minutes in games the Illini should win was vital.

"Coach does a great job not harping over it, but he speaks on it time to time and let's us know it's important," Illinois guard Ty Rodgers said. "The older guys relay that message to the younger guys."

The likely ups and downs of a 20-game Big Ten schedule were also a pertinent topic of conversation. Illinois had both during the regular season. The home loss to Maryland qualifies as a bad loss now that it's settled back in Quad III territory. A 5-6 record in Quad I games meant a combination of good wins and some missed opportunities.

"You've got to talk about those things," Underwood said. "We don't shy away from them. This group has to understand the abruptness of the end."

The end of Marcus Domask's college basketball career is coming. Just like it is for Terrence Shannon Jr., Quincy Guerrier and Justin Harmon. Those four have just two guaranteed games remaining.

"It's just us kind of understanding the situation," Domask said. "It's that time. It's March. Every game means so much — especially now with tournament play.

"The only thing that matters is if you win or not. I don't have a ring yet in college. I'm looking to get one any way possible."

That's the mindset Illinois will take into the Big Ten tournament. The plan is three games in three days. A chance to win a second conference tournament in four years. Have its on-court celebration lead right into the Selection Show just like it did in 2021 when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn led the Illini to their first Big Ten tournament title since 2005.

Underwood knows three wins in three days in Minneapolis might not have any effect on what seed the Illini get for the NCAA tournament or where the committee sends them for the first round. A No. 4 seed heading into the tournament might be a No. 4 seed coming out of it.

But three wins in three days is still the goal even amidst the grumbling from Big Ten fans has started to question the wisdom of that level of exertion when the conference as a whole hasn't won a national championship since 2000.

"I'm playing to win," Underwood said. "I'm playing to win every (darn) game we go out and play. You can say it doesn't mean anything and the NCAA tournament is the NCAA tournament. As long as we're playing games that the jersey on the other side says a different university and it's a different color, we're trying to play to win.

"I don't buy all the rest and this and that. I'm there to play to win. I would love to be standing on a ladder trying to cut down a net on Sunday and then try to go do it again."