Illini Finally Get True NCAA Tournament Experience After Last Season’s COVID Bubble

For the first time under head coach Brad Underwood, Illinois will get a more normal NCAA Tournament feel as compared to the COVID-19 bubble of last year.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

March 13, 2022

(Cover photo courtesy Joe Clark/IlliniGuys)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Even after its third quality regular season, Illinois is finally getting a true NCAA Tournament feel and experience.

Two years ago, the coronavirus pandemic canceled the entire event after the Illini finished 21-10 and likely would’ve received a top four seed in a NCAA Tournament regional. Last season, the tournament was played and Illinois earned a No. 1 seed but wasn’t able to enjoy the experience surrounding one of the best events in sports.

“Last year we walked into a building with practically nobody really. No crowd. No atmosphere,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said Sunday. “Last year we never even got to celebrate the (Big Ten Tournament) championship. They gave us a Chick-fil-A sandwich and then sent us to testing and quarantine.”

After their name was revealed early in CBS’ NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday evening, the Illinois players and coaches had a pedestrian reaction to being a 4-seed and being sent to Pittsburgh for its first round matchup vs. Chattanooga.

“We still have that bad taste in our mouth from last year,” Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said Sunday. “Seeds don't matter. We've just got to play our best every night.”

However, according to Illini head coach Brad Underwood the goal for this 2021-22 team, which shared the Big Ten Conference regular season championship with Wisconsin, is to “have fun” as they try to advance. It’s safe to say the experience will be much more player-friendly, preparation-friendly and enjoyable for all concerned than the quarantine conditions of the 2021 NCAA Tournament in Indiana/Indianapolis.

“We didn’t even see each other (in between practices and games) where we’d get a knock on the door and there’s your breakfast and knock on the door and there’s your lunch and it was fabulous because we got to play,” said Underwood.

The quarantine conditions before the mass vaccinations and safeguards that are in place worldwide, which were mandated by the NCAA to avoid COVID-19 breakouts during the event, did not allow for group interaction, proper practice preparation, adequate medical/physical training time and much fan appreciation for the players, coaches and staff.

“Now you’ve got an opportunity to process things, be around your guys, wind them up,” Underwood said. “I mean, think about this, we’re on spring break so we’ll practice twice [Monday]. It’s just apples and oranges, a different deal to be honest.”

As the senior night celebration before tip of the regular season finale versus Iowa at State Farm Center on March 6 showed, Illinois could have as many as five players (Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, Alfonso Plummer, Jacob Grandison and Kofi Cockburn) finishing their college basketball careers in this NCAA Tournament.

“We've been pretty darn good, and you've got to enjoy those moments,” Underwood said Sunday.

Pittsburgh will be the 31st different city for Illinois to play a NCAA Tournament game when they take the floor at PPG Paints Arena for a 5:50 p.m. CT tip on TNT against the Southern Conference regular season and tournament champions. Frazier, who will play his 156th career game on Friday in the NCAA Tournament first round, said he and most of his teammates didn’t pay attention to the location of the Illini’s first game.

“Location doesn’t matter. I don’t really see the locations. I’m not going there for vacation. We’ve got a goal,” Frazier said. “We’re trying to get to a Final Four, farther than that. We have one goal and that’s to continue to survive and advance every night. "

On Sunday, Cockburn seconded Frazier’s indifference to first and second round location in what might be his last postseason in an Illini jersey. The 7-foot, 290-pound center said he’s only concerned about the location if Illinois wins four games in a row.

“Before today there was only one location I knew about, and that was New Orleans,” Cockburn said, referencing the 2022 Final Four location.

Underwood said he and his staff don’t break the NCAA Tournament into three two-game segments in order to potentially lessen the mental grind of trying to envision winning six games in a row for what would be the program’s first national championship. As last year’s result in the second round to Loyola (Chicago) can dictate, just trying to advance through one game in this postseason event is daunting enough.

“Win one in a row…it’s on to the next and that’s what the NCAA Tournament is all about being on to the next, survive and advance one at a time and you have to have that mentality,” Underwood said.

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