• adamzielonka

Why Illinois has the best shot to beat Gonzaga, end Big Ten’s title drought

It was a long weekend of basketball-watching for me, culminating in the selection show and some preliminary bracket studies Sunday night. I’m sure this describes the weekend many of you had, too. But when I started preparing to write this blog, I realized that I wasn’t done watching. I went to YouTube and pulled up some highlights from a game in December.

The game that was weighing on my mind was Baylor-Illinois, from the Jimmy V Classic. I was thinking about a column by Brian Hamilton of The Athletic after Baylor pulled away for an 82-69 win. “Baylor knows how to assert its will when necessary,” he wrote at the time. “Illinois thought it did, especially with one of the best closers in college hoops on the roster. And then it ran into the experts.”

That’s what I found striking after the Illini completed its run in the Big Ten Tournament, taking the title game in overtime mere minutes before the NCAA bracket was revealed. Even two weeks ago, I didn’t fully believe in this team, only tentatively offering my nod to its chances at a No. 1 seed. Now, I feel it’s clear that Illinois – not Michigan, Ohio State or Iowa – is best positioned to take down undefeated Gonzaga and win the first national men’s basketball title the Big Ten has had since 2000.

The change we’ve seen from Illinois from early in the season to now – the intangibles, perhaps – are just one of the reasons why. I see it like this:

1. The talent

It’ll be hard for me not to let this devolve into a mere recitation of the stats, but Illinois provides so much to discuss. The Illini were the only team from a power conference to shoot better than 50% from the floor for the season. They say defense travels, and though it isn’t the first thing associated with the Illini, they allowed a stingy enough 41.06% field-goal shooting against what KenPom.com rated the third-strongest schedule in the country.

In fact, when you boil it down, only three teams ranked top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom’s metrics this year: Gonzaga (first and 10th), Michigan (sixth and seventh) and Illinois (seventh and fifth). NCAA champions of the last 20 years almost always rank in the top 20 on both offense and defense at the end of the year, and usually in the top 11 of both.

Any team interested in taking down Gonzaga will need to stymie their historically good offense, and/or keep up with it. Illinois is among the precious few teams built to be able to do both.

The inside-outside combo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn is potent in any game, and Dosunmu’s only gotten better after returning from his broken nose and assuming his Batman mask. Cockburn averaged 9.9 rebounds per game in Big Ten play, outperforming dudes like Luka Garza, Trevion Williams and Hunter Dickinson. And Dosunmu doesn’t always have to be the hero with Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, Adam Miller and Da'Monte Williams forming the best group of guards this side of Baylor.

2. The draw

Here’s a fun note: Missouri Valley champion Loyola-Chicago has the No. 10 NET in the country, but drew the No. 8 seed in the Midwest... and the Ramblers might be the toughest opponent in terms of NET that Illinois meets in its region. The only team rated higher is the Midwest second seed, Houston (No. 5 NET), which deserves its seed but also might be a bit overrated because of its weak strength of schedule. Houston hasn’t had to face a Big Ten team all year, for example. Yet Illinois might not have to deal with Houston, as other upset-minded dark horses lurk in that part bracket – No. 6 San Diego State, No. 7 Clemson.

An Ayo Dosunmu-Cade Cunningham matchup in the Sweet 16 would be heaven for viewers, but will it even happen? No. 4 Oklahoma State drew a nightmare opponent in the first round with No. 13 Liberty, a small-conference champ that’s won an NCAA Tournament game before and does everything well. In short, as long as Illinois avoids a Round of 32 upset, I’ve got a feeling they have the most straightforward waltz to the Final Four of any top seed.

Compare it with Big Ten other contenders’ respective paths. Michigan, being the fourth No. 1 seed, appropriately drew the toughest region in the East: SEC champion Alabama, Big 12 champion Texas and nearly-ACC champion Florida State make for a daunting two-three-four combo. No. 6 BYU intrigues me, No. 9 St. Bonaventure could make the Round of 32 a drag for the Wolverines, and what if No. 11 Michigan State runs into them in the Elite Eight...?

In the bottom half of the West, second-seeded Iowa might have to get by Kansas just to face Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, and No. 2 Ohio State would have to meet Baylor in the South Region before thinking about the Final Four.

3. The growth

Speaking of Baylor, back to that game in December.

It was Illinois’ fourth game of the season, and not its first real test; it had just escaped Ohio, now the MAC champions and a No. 13 seed in March Madness, by a margin of only two. For roughly the first 30 minutes against Baylor, it was a true back-and-forth affair. Finally, the Bears pulled off a run that Illinois couldn’t quell; they delivered a punch that Illinois couldn’t return. The Illini hadn’t yet developed a killer instinct strong enough to hang with the best of the best.

“The lesson here is about what it takes to impose your will in moments big and small, and learning and applying such a lesson carries well beyond a one-off shot at vengeance,” Hamilton wrote for The Athletic.

I find it almost amusing to look back on a game played four months ago and use it as a lens for what’s happened since. Illinois has that killer instinct now; it had to be honed in order to get through the Big Ten wringer with the record it has. Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu wouldn’t have knocked down high-pressure threes in the waning minutes of regulation Sunday without it. Ohio State hung around and around and around, as the Buckeyes are known to do, but Illinois took care of them in overtime. That’s imposing your will.

Illinois might get a rematch with Baylor in the Final Four. From my limited viewing of post-bracket analysis shows Sunday night, Illinois is the trendy pick here, and I hate to be trendy, but I’m on board. When they met in December, Cockburn was in foul trouble most of the game and only finished with seven points and four boards, which the Illini surely won’t let happen again. Illinois has the guards to match Baylor’s starters, and given how he’s playing lately, you figure Dosunmu will shoot better than 6-for-18 like he did in the previous meeting.

Finally, if you’re the kind of bracket-filler who wants to talk about momentum, Illinois is 14-1 in the last two months against brutal competition. It’s the hottest team in the country not named Gonzaga. And it might have enough to take that Gonzaga squad to the wire.

Big Ten bracketology

Finally, some stray thoughts about the other eight Big Ten teams’ draws and chances in the tournament:

- I don’t hate Michigan’s chances to reach the Final Four, but again, that draw is ruthless. The Wolverines could be upset as early as the Round of 32 to St. Bonaventure; that’s how good the Bonnies are this season. But I haven’t forgotten the Michigan team I watched lay waste to opponents throughout February. Mike Smith’s elite passing and Hunter Dickinson’s poise and coordination, for a freshman his size and on this type of stage, never cease to amaze me. I believe they still can go far.

- Let’s not gloss over Ohio State, which had a hell of a week in Indianapolis. You want to talk about taking a punch and giving it right back? That’s not just true of Illinois. The Buckeyes’ appear to have put that late-season, four-game losing streak to use in the locker room; it made them tougher than ever, tough enough to fend off pesky Purdue, avenge their previous loss to Michigan by a point and take Illinois to overtime. Duane Washington Jr. is a beast. I’m picking them to reach the Elite Eight, and if they meet Baylor there, the game should be fireworks.

- I’ll stay in the South Region and wrap up with my favorite study in contrasts, Purdue and Wisconsin. Hoo, boy. Remember when bracket experts projected them both to be around a five seed about two or three weeks ago? Part of me wants to take credit for fading the Badgers and hyping up the Boilermakers, but even I didn’t think a No. 9 was on the table for Wisconsin. Then again, this is a team that finished the season losing six of eight, nearly lost to Penn State in its first Big Ten Tournament game, and is one of just five teams in the field that has a negative field goal percentage differential for the season (meaning it allows a better shooting percentage to opponents than it manages on offense). Even if the Badgers beat No. 8 North Carolina, Baylor will blow right by them in the second round.

- Purdue, meanwhile, got pretty lucky with its draw. It impressed the committee enough to garner a No. 4 seed, and nothing about its first opponent, No. 13 North Texas, screams “upset” to me. But on top of that, the Boilers were slotted in with Villanova as a No. 5. The Wildcats have been a far less threatening team since Colin Gillespie’s season-ending MCL tear; either No. 12 Winthrop will upset them, or Purdue will have something of a cakewalk against them in the Round of 32. (Then, of course, they’d likely meet up with Baylor. But a fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance for Matt Painter’s program, after being voted ninth in the league in the preseason poll, would make this season a huge success.)

- Now it’s time to circle back around to Iowa, the other No. 2 seed to come out of this league. Look, I don’t have the guts to pick it myself, but the 2-15 matchup against Grand Canyon caught my eye – and if Grand Canyon seals the upset, I’d rather have it on the record that I was smart but gutless than to try to claim after the fact that I saw it coming all along. The Antelopes have a strong statistical profile, albeit against weak competition in the WAC. They shoot 49.16% from the floor while allowing just 37.64% to their opponents, and they rebound much better than Iowa, with a rebounding margin of +9. And this isn’t any old team making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The coach is Bryce Drew, Scott’s brother, who has taken Valparaiso and Vanderbilt to the dance before. I think he can draw up some ways to contain Garza, forcing Iowa to beat them with other players. (Now, with all that said, it would still be a gigantic upset and it’s far more likely Iowa wins a couple games, maybe even over Kansas in the Sweet 16.)

- These last three will be quick. I commend Maryland for beating Michigan State (again) and putting up the fight it did against Michigan. Shoot, maybe I shouldn’t use the word fight after that Juwan Howard-Mark Turgeon incident. Let’s just leave that behind us and look forward. I’ll probably fill out a few brackets this year, and in one of them I’m going to pick my alma mater to win its first game over Connecticut (call it the Randy Edsall Bowl?), because I like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year’s Darryl Morsell chances guarding James Bouknight. But that’s the Terps’ ceiling with this draw.

- Similarly, being the Jersey boy that I am, I’m definitely going to send No. 10 Rutgers to the Sweet 16 in one of my brackets. The Scarlet Knights have shown they can hang with the top teams in the country when they’re on their game. But Clemson is a heck of a seventh seed to draw, to say nothing of the looming Round of 32 matchup against Houston, a defensive juggernaut. Still, it’s nice to have the option to pick Rutgers in this tournament at all; it’s the program’s first appearance in my lifetime.

- Finally, congrats to Michigan State for making it this far and securing a tournament berth, soaring past Big Ten opponents like Indiana and Minnesota that were jockeying for the same. It pays to catch fire late in the year. But the Spartans landed in the Last Four In and got paired with UCLA for a No. 11 seed play-in game. Even if they win that, No. 6 BYU and No. 3 Texas await. If this was a Cinderella run – if a blue blood such as Michigan State can even embark on a Cinderella run, by definition – it’s a few minutes to midnight.

(Photo via CBS Sports HQ on Twitter)

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