Illinois, ranked No. 11 nationally in the Nike coaches poll, heads into the 72-hole Big Ten Tournament on Friday at West Lafayette, Ind., seeking to become the first team to win a third straight conference title since Northwestern in 2001. The tournament concludes Sunday. It's the start of the postseason, with the NCAA regionals and finals later in May and early June.

CHAMPAIGN -- When the college golf season goes from April to May, the events change from tournaments to championships.


Illinois, ranked No. 11 nationally in the Nike coaches poll, heads into the 72-hole Big Ten Tournament on Friday at West Lafayette, Ind., seeking to become the first team to win a third straight conference title since Northwestern in 2001. The tournament concludes Sunday. It's the start of the postseason, with the NCAA regionals and finals later in May and early June.


Illini senior Scott Langley won the NCAA title a year ago, but the Illini seek a big finish as a team in NCAA play after building their reputation over the last three-plus seasons.


"We always tell the team you win tournaments in the fall and spring,'' coach Mike Small said. "At the end of spring, you try to win championships. We've done that with the Big Ten championships. We've played well in (NCAA) regionals, but we've not done well yet in the NCAA finals.''


Illinois has the depth and experience to compete for a spot in the Elite Eight -- the eight teams that advance to match play at the NCAA championships -- after finishing 17th, 21st and 19th in the last three years.


Junior Luke Guthrie, of Quincy, has won twice this season, including a co-title last weekend at the Kepler Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, where the Illini also shared the team title. Guthrie leads the Illini in stroke average at 71.5.


Senior Chris DeForest, of Cottekill, N.Y., finished in the top 10 in his first three Big Ten meets, placing 10th, third and 10th. DeForest finished under par in his last six rounds played at the Kampen Course in the Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex that serves as the site for the conference meet. He won the Boilermaker Invitational there last season.


After a dream season a year ago -- winning the NCAA title and a U.S. Open qualifier, finishing as the top amateur and tying for 16th at the U.S. Open, winning the clinching match in Palmer Cup in Ireland and playing on the U.S. World Amateur team in Argentina -- Langley, from Manchester, Mo., has been solid but not yet spectacular. He's finished outside the top 15 only once.


"He's not played his best this year, but he's only a blink away from playing really well,'' Small said. "He's played strong but just not had any breakout rounds.''


Sophomore Mason Jacobs, of Metropolis, and freshman Thomas Pieters, of Belgium, will also play for the Illini this weekend.


NOTE: Illinois has 20 tournament titles since the start of the 2007-08 season after winning 13 titles in the previous 18 seasons. … When the Illini women received a berth in the NCAA Central Regional golf field, it marked the third regional appearance in the program's history and first since 2003. The Illini play May 5-7 at Notre Dame.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.