The 2010-11 college basketball season saw another competitive Illinois squad ranked among the nation's Top 25 for much of the year, return to the NCAA Tournament, and secure its first postseason win in five years. Led by seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, the Illini finished the year in fourth place in a loaded Big Ten race and 20-14 overall, marking the seventh 20-win season under eighth-year head coach Bruce Weber.
The Illini began the year at No. 13 in the polls and started red-hot, winning 10 of its first 11 games with the only loss coming to a Texas team that would later reach as high as No. 3 nationally. Illinois opened with three straight home victories before heading to New York's Madison Square Garden for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Illinois battled Texas wire to wire, led by McCamey's 22 points. But the Longhorns eventually prevailed in overtime. The Illini bounced back the next day, defeating Maryland in the consolation game as McCamey scored 20 to earn a spot on the All-Tournament team.
Two more wins followed, setting up the anticipated showdown with North Carolina in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini rolled to a 79-67 victory at the Assembly Hall behind Davis' double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds). The momentum carried over to Seattle, where Illinois hit 12 three-pointers and all five starters scored in double figures in a 73-61 win over Gonzaga.
Illinois added two more home victories to extend its winning streak to seven games and vault to No. 12 in the rankings. Following semester exams, Illinois saw its streak come to an end with an upset loss to UIC at the United Center. The Illini were then unable to maintain a late lead against Missouri, falling to the Tigers in the annual Braggin' Rights to finish the non-conference with a 10-3 record.
Illinois came out of the gate strong in Big Ten play, winning each of its first three games. In the conference opener at Iowa, the Orange and Blue set a school record by shooting 72.2 percent from 3-point range, hitting 13-of-18 from behind the arc. Illinois continued its hot shooting in a home victory over Wisconsin, then took it to another level in a blowout win over Northwestern. The Illini made 31-of-44 shots against the Wildcats, with the 70.5 percent accuracy setting school and Assembly Hall field goal percentage records.
The 16th-ranked Illini stumbled after the strong start, dropping four of its next five games. The setbacks were agonizing, as the UI had opportunities down the stretch to win three of those games. The highlight during was a home victory over No. 16 Michigan State, led by Brandon Paul's 20-point effort.
Illinois opened February with a route of Penn State at the Assembly Hall, then lost another heartbreaker, this time a one-point decision at Northwestern. Road success would come five days later, however, as the Illini gutted out an inspirational win at Minnesota.
Illinois closed Big Ten play with a tough schedule for the second straight year, with five of its last seven games against upper-division opponents. The Illini defeated Michigan in a two-point thriller, but came up just short in two more road games that again were not decided until the final minute.
Illinois wrapped up the regular season in style, crushing Indiana 72-48 as seniors McCamey, Davis, Tisdale and Bill Cole combined for 50 points and 23 rebounds in their final game at the Assembly Hall.
After finishing tied for fourth-place with a 9-9 league record, the Illini earned the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and dropped a 60-55 decision to fellow fourth-place finisher Michigan in the quarterfinal.
The Illini gathered on Selection Sunday to watch the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament Brackets and were awarded the No. 9 seed in the Southwest Region. The strength of the Big Ten was recognized as seven league teams received bids, equaling a record number for the conference. Illinois headed to Tulsa, Okla. and faced No. 8 seed UNLV – led by former Illini head coach Lon Kruger – in a second-round match-up. The Illini put together a staggering 15-0 run midway through the first half to jump out to a 29-12 lead, which would later to grow to as many as 25 points. When the final buzzer sounded, Illinois celebrated its first NCAA Tournament win since 2006 and its second time defeating a higher-seeded team in the Tournament with the 73-62 victory over the Rebels.
Illinois next faced top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Kansas in the third round. The storyline from the UNLV game appeared again as the program faced another opponent led by a former Illini head coach in KU's Bill Self. Illinois battled the Jayhawks throughout the night and trailed by just five points with less than seven minutes left before Kansas ultimately pulled away at the end.
McCamey earned third-team All-Big Ten and USBWA All-District honors after leading the Illini in scoring, averaging 14.6 points, and ranking 10th in the NCAA in assists with an average of 6.1 apg. The second player in Big Ten history with 1,700 points and 700 assists, McCamey finished his career ranked sixth on the Illini all-time scoring list (1,718 points) and second in school history in assists (733).
Davis was voted team MVP after a strong senior season. He was second on the Illini in scoring with an average of 12.5 points and increased his shooting accuracy to 52.9 percent to rank sixth in the league. Davis led the UI in rebounding for the third straight season, ranking sixth in the Big Ten with an average of 7.2 boards. He concluded his career as Illinois' second all-time leading rebounder (902) and No. 22 on the school scoring chart (1,279 points).
Tisdale was the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, averaging 10 points and a career-best 6.4 boards. He shot 50.6 percent from the field and was one of the top shooters from distance nationally among centers, shooting 80 percent from the free throw line and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Tisdale ended his career ranked second at Illinois in career blocked shots (175) and No. 25 on the Illini scoring list (1,243 points).