Illinois sees Duquesne in the way of its first Sweet 16 in nearly 2 decades of March Madness

'Duquesne forward Jakub Necas (7) celebrates after a 71-67 win over BYU in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

By DAVE SKRETTA AP Basketball Writer

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Brad Underwood smirked and almost imperceptibly shook his head when the question was asked: What would it mean for Illinois to finally make it back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades?

“If we’re fortunate,” the coach said after a long pause, “ask me then. I’ll tell you that then. Not getting too far ahead.”

Perhaps because Underwood knows the third-seeded Fighting Illini first must face perhaps the hottest team in the tournament on Saturday night in No. 11 seed Duquesne, which has won nine straight for retiring coach Keith Dambrot after dispatching BYU in the first round.

Perhaps because the Fighting Illini have served up so many letdowns over the years.

They were seeded fifth in 2009, when they were dumped by No. 12 seed Western Kentucky. They were one of the No. 1 seeds in the pandemic bubble in 2021, when they lost in the second round to eighth-seeded Loyola Chicago. And the fourth seed the following year, when they fell to No. 5 seed Houston in a game in which they never got going.

“We don’t necessarily talk about that much,” said the Fighting Illini’s Luke Goode. “That’s something other people talk about. We just look at it as another game, another opportunity to win. … We haven’t thought of records or anything like that, the history of Illinois.”

It’s a proud history, to be sure, even if folks tend to forget about it.

The same can be said for all four teams fighting for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Before the 47 years the Dukes spent trying in vain to return to the NCAA Tournament, they were one of the most progressive programs in the college game, riding early integration to extraordinary success in the 1940s and ’50s. Now, with a victory over Illinois, they would be headed back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1969 — a drought that makes the Fighting Illini’s look like a blink.

In the other semifinal at CHI Health Center, No. 2 seed Iowa State will be trying to continue a dominant postseason that included a romp past then-No. 1 Houston in the Big 12 Tournament finals. The Cyclones will be facing seventh-seeded Washington State, which was a national runner-up way back in 1941, returned to the Sweet 16 in 2008 and hasn’t been back since.

“I mean, this is every kid’s dream playing in this tournament,” the Cougars’ Myles Rice said, “but you can’t make the moment too big or more than what it is. It’s basketball at the end of the day, but you have to have fun with it.”


LeBron James, who was coached in high school by Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Ohio, has been closely following the Dukes, gifting the entire team new shoes before the tournament and then shouting about their win over BYU on social media Thursday night.

“It would be better if he was on our team. Then we might have a little advantage,” Dambrot quipped. “He’ll never forget the people that helped him, you know? He likes me but he loves Dru Joyce, who is our associate head coach. They’ve been best friends forever. And he cares about us. It’s nice to have him a part of our program. I wouldn’t be sitting here without him.”


The get-in price for Saturday night was about $150 on Friday afternoon, which probably wasn’t a bad deal if the alternative was standing outside; the wind chill was in the 20s when teams arrived to practice. The ticket prices were likely driven up by Iowa State fans, who are known for zealously following their team to the Big 12 Tournament and elsewhere.

“Just very fortunate and thankful to our fans for the sacrifices they make to be here,” Cyclones coach T.J. Otzelberger said.


One of the emotional sparkplugs for Illinois is assistant coach Chester Frazier, a two-time team captain during his playing days. In fact, Frazier has been known to step on the court and show he can still ball, and rumors are there is video evidence that shows the 37-year-old point guard dunking on some of his guys in practice.

“Those have to be photoshopped,” Underwood said. “There’s not a chance in hell he’s doing that.”


The Cyclones are trying to reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, yet they nevertheless keep a chip on their shoulder. That was evident Friday, when forward Tre King was ruminating about the fact that pundits picked them to finish seventh in the Big 12.

“We embrace it,” said King, who will have to reconcile with oddsmakers pegging them a 6.5-point favorite against the Cougars, according to Fanduel Sportsbook. “Every time we have a big game, everyone thinks we’re going to lose. We always rise up.”


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness