BY CHAD DARE
In his previous three seasons of college basketball, Illinois senior Sam McLaurin has never experienced “Selection Sunday.”
The transfer from Coastal Carolina had played in two National Invitation Tournaments and one College Insiders Tournament.
So in his final year of eligibility, the idea of playing in one NCAA Tournament was his goal from first day.
“That was the big deal. Other than the academic side, I wanted to go somewhere I had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament,’’ said McLaurin, who has averaged 4.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game this season with the Illini. “Coming from the Big South, it’s either win your conference tournament or go home.
“That wasn’t what I want to be a part of anymore. Coming to a league that gets seven teams into the tournament is great.’’
His dreams were realized on Sunday when the Illinois Fighting Illini (22-12) were announced as the No. 7 seed in East Region, opening the NCAA Tournament in Austin, Texas against the 10th-seeded Colorado Buffaloes.
“It’s a very special day,’’ McLaurin said. “You are on the edge of your seat, kind of trying to figure out where you are going to go. You are hearing all of this speculation and possible seedings and pairings.
“But, when it actually happens, it’s a totally different feeling.’’
And what about his previous years at Coastal Carolina, didn’t they ever get close to an NCAA Tournament.
“My first two seasons there we won 28 games. We went 28-5 and 28-6. So, you definitely thought we won a pretty good amount of games maybe we can get in,’’ he said as the Chanticleers lost to Winthorp and UNC-Asheville in the championship games of the Big South Tournament in 2010 and 2011 respectively. “But the chances were always really slim, so I didn’t bother watching the selection show. I always waited about for the NIT Selection Show.’’
And how did that compare to Sunday’s?
“With the NIT, there is a little selection show that’s on ESPNU, it’s never on CBS,’’ McLaurin said. “It’s a great feeling hearing your name called and hearing the analysts compare you to the other team. It just gets your blood rushing a little bit.
“Now to end my career going to an NCAA Tournament is everything you could dream of.’’
McLaurin is one of four seniors on the Illini roster and they all understand the next loss will be last of their careers,
“Being in the tournament, no matter what seed you are, is good,’’ Illinois senior D.J. Richardson. “Every team is good, any team can get beat and this is single elimination.
“Selection Sunday is fun. This is what every team in college basketball plays for, to play in the NCAA Tournament. You don’t know who you are going to play against — it’s a blessing just to be selected.’’
And Illinois, along with Butler, are the only two teams in the Nation with wins over two No. 1 seeds as both the Illini and the Bulldogs defeated Gonzaga and Indiana this year.
“Just the simple fact, that we know when we are playing well and we execute, we can play with anyone in the country,’’ McLaurin said.
And while this will be his first ever trip to Austin, Texas, McLaurin said his focus is firmly planted on the basketball court.
“Getting some wins, first and foremost,’’ he said.
Friday’s game will tip off at 3:40 p.m. TNT will provide television coverage while WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 103.1