CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The Illinois Fighting Illini can breathe again.
After bracing for a second straight year of bad news, the Illini discovered Sunday they will be one of the 68 teams playing in this year's NCAA tournament. The Illini were given a No. 9 seed and will play No. 8-seeded UNLV in Tulsa, Okla. in the Southwest region on Friday.
"After what I experienced last year, you never know," Illinois senior forward Bill Cole said. "I was more confident this year than I was last year, but at the same time there's always that little seed of doubt. I don't care who you are, when the first two regions go by you're just begging to hear your name called. I was definitely not eating anything as the show was going on.
"I was just ecstatic. I jumped up and got in the middle of everyone, hugged everyone. Just so excited to get the opportunity."
UNLV, coached by former Illinois coach Lon Kruger, went 24-8 overall this season, 11-5 in the Mountain West Conference.
Kruger coached Illinois from 1996-2000. His Illini teams went 81-48 overall and 38-28 in the Big Ten and reached three NCAA tournaments. Illinois lost in the second round in all three appearances. Kruger resigned from Illinois in 2000 to become the Atlanta Hawks head coach in the NBA. He was hired by UNLV in 2004.
If Illinois was to defeat UNLV, the Illini would likely play No. 1-seeded Kansas and another former Illinois coach Bill Self. Self coached Illinois from 2000-2003. His Illini teams went 78-24 overall, 35-13 in the Big Ten and reached three NCAA tournaments. Illinois advanced to the Elite 8 under Self in 2001 and the Sweet 16 in 2002. He left Illinois to be hired by Kansas. The Illini's run to the NCAA championship game in 2005 was spurred on by a number of Self's recruits.
"I think they always look for a little storylines to add to the drama of the March Madness," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "I'm sure they don't take that much time to find them all, but when they pop up there and there's an opportunity, I'm sure it's something they feel adds to the excitement. I'm sure CBS appreciates it."
This will be the second time Illinois' senior group of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Cole will play in the NCAA tournament. They were a No. 5 seed in 2009 and were upset by 12th-seeded Western Kentucky in the first round.
"It's a new season," McCamey said. "On any given day, you watch the tournament, I've watched the tournament for years and seen the No. 1's go down, the No. 2's go down and things like that. It's a new day."
Illinois went 19-13 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten this season. The Illini were ranked 47th in RPI and 20th in strength of schedule.
Now that the Illini can stop worrying about making the field, their new priority has to be improving their play. Illinois went 5-7 in its last 12 games and is 4-8 against top 50 RPI teams since Jan. 1.
The Illini displayed their good and bad qualities in their Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan, 60-55, on Friday. Illinois looked dominant for stretches and built a 12-point lead, but fell apart in the final eight minutes.
"We got to make plays," Davis said. "We had too many players not make plays. We have too many guys who can score, too many guys who can get to the basket, too many guys who are too talented not to make plays.
"I just know we're a great team and we're a very deep team. A scout said one through nine we're the most talented team in the Big Ten. For a NBA scout to say that is huge. People see our talent. I don't want it to be a waste. We just have to go out and use our talent to win games."
The Illini were in a nearly identical situation at tournament time last season, but did not make the NCAA tournament field. After going 19-14 overall in 2009-10, including a couple of losses to subpar teams, Illinois accepted a NIT bid and lost to Dayton in the quarterfinals.
"I'm excited, but it's also relief because you didn't know," Weber said. "Last year was so hard to deal with. You thought there was a chance, but you knew it was doubtful. When it didn't happen, it was tough to deal with. I was just hoping I didn't have to deal with it again, to talk the players. I hope they appreciate it."
Illinois hasn't won a NCAA tournament game since 2006 and hasn't advanced past the second round since reaching the championship game in 2005.
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.