ESPN's Joe Lunardi Projects Illini In Latest Way-Too-Early NCAA Bracket

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Arguably the most recognized college basketball bracket analyst still likes what he sees from the upcoming 2020-21 Illinois roster.

Joe Lunardi, who has been doing NCAA tournament analysis for nearly two decades, still had the Illini in his latest projected field of 68, which was released Wednesday. Illinois remained as a 9-seed in Lunardi’s way-too-early bracket projections, which is the seeding the Illini have been given by Lunardi in each of his last four projections. The top seed in Illinois’ region, according to Lunardi, is Baylor.

In his latest way-too-early bracket, the Illini are projected to play 8-seed Louisiana State in the South Region in Dallas, Texas. The Illini have played NCAA tournament games in the state of Texas in three years of the program history (1990, 2001 and 2013) included the last time Illinois was officially in the postseason tournament referred to as ‘March Madness’. Illinois lost a first round matchup versus 12-seed Dayton in 1990 in Austin, Texas. In 2001, the top-seed Illini won a regional semifinal game at the Alamodome in San Antonio against 4-seed Kansas 80-64 before losing to 2-seed Arizona 87-81 in the regional final. In 2013, an Illini team, led by first-year head coach John Groce, defeated 10-seed Colorado 57-49 in Austin, Texas before losing to 2-seed Miami (Fla.) 63-59 in the second round.

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The Illini have only been a 9-seed in the NCAA tournament one time in school history. In 2011, then-head coach Bruce Weber led Illinois to a 73-62 win in the first round against 8-seed UNLV led by former Illini coach Lon Kruger. The Illini would then face another former Illini coach as Bill Self’s top-seeded Kansas squad defeated Illinois in the second round 73-59. Weber took over the Illini program in 2003 after Self left Illinois for the job at Kansas.

Illinois has never played LSU in a NCAA tournament game but owns a 2-0 all-time record against the Tigers after Lou Henson scheduled a home-and-home agreement with a LSU program led then by Dale Brown. The 1988-89 Illinois, which eventually went to the Final Four, defeated LSU in the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge 127-100. Two years later, the Illini defeated a LSU squad featuring Shaquille O’Neal three days before Christmas in 1990 in Champaign’s Assembly Hall 102-96.

Illinois (21-10, 13-7 in Big Ten) was projected to receive an at-large berth in the 2020 NCAA tournament and make the program’s first appearance in the event in seven years. The coronavirus pandemic forced NCAA president Mark Emmert to cancel the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments

“I don’t think there was any doubt (about Illinois qualifying for the NCAA tournament) and we weren’t a bubble team. We were in,” Illinois men’s basketball head coach Brad Underwood said on March 13. “All the talk for us was can we move up a (seed) line? That is how the Big Ten tournament was going to impact us.”

Illinois is still waiting on the draft decisions of stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn but CBS Sports basketball analyst Jon Rothstein already did a report on June 13 suggesting the Illini would be one of the nation’s Top 10 programs if Dosunmu and Cockburn were to return for one more year of college basketball.