Breaking down Illinois’ path to the Final Four

Students+celebrate+on+the+Main+Quad+after+the+Illinois+Mens+Basketball+Team+became+Big+Ten+champions+on+Sunday+afternoon.+The+team+needs+a+cohesive+plan+in+order+to+make+it+to+the+Final+Four.+

Cameron Krasucki

Students celebrate on the Main Quad after the Illinois Men’s Basketball Team became Big Ten champions on Sunday afternoon. The team needs a cohesive plan in order to make it to the Final Four.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

After eight seasons without an NCAA Tournament berth, Illinois is back in the postseason picture. Fresh off a Big Ten Tournament championship, the Illini were awarded the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.

It was Illinois’ first No. 1 seed since 2005 and the fourth time in school history.

To get to the Final Four, you need to win four games. To win the whole thing, you need to win six. From a first glance, Illinois definitely doesn’t have an easy path, but all teams have a common goal if they want to make it to the first weekend of April — win four straight games.

Here’s a look at Illinois’ path.

Round One: Drexel

The Dragons entered the Colonial Athletic Association tournament as a 6-seed after going 4-5 in conference play, They went on a March run and got some luck, as they beat No. 8 seed Elon in the final. The Dragons are 146th in KenPom and cracked the top 100 in offense, but they rank 246th in defense.

A 16-over-1 seed upset has only happened once in the history of March Madness. Drexel has some size inside, but Kofi Cockburn will still have the advantage. Junior guard Camren Wynter is their leading scorer at just under 17 points per game, but he’s no Ayo Dosunmu. Illinois is a 20-point favorite for a reason, and I expect them to roll.

Round Two: Loyola or Georgia Tech

The 8-9 seeds in this year’s bracket feature some interesting teams. Missouri is the No. 9 team in the West region. Wisconsin and Oklahoma were both AP top 10 teams at one point. Even North Carolina and LSU are stacked with four and five star guys.

But no 8-9 seeds are as hot as the two in Illinois’ region. The Loyola Ramblers are 24-4, having won their last six games. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have won seven straight, including the ACC Tournament. When do you ever see ACC tourney champ and Big Ten tourney champ meet in the second round?

The metrics love the Ramblers, who are No. 1 defensively in KenPom. Loyola is led by 6-foot-9-inch center Cameron Krutwig, who is one of the better passing bigs in the country. His contrasting style with Cockburn could be fun to watch, and while the Ramblers will make it tough to score, I don’t think they have the guard power to take down Illinois.

To me, Georgia Tech is the bigger threat to Illinois. The Yellow Jackets had a COVID-19 pause right before the season, causing them to look sluggish out of the gate. They dropped their first two games of the season — to Georgia State and Mercer — but are 17-6 since then, including seven straight wins. 6-foot-9-inch Moses Wright is a workhorse inside, taking home ACC Player of the Year honors. The backcourt features Jose Alverado and Michael Devoe, who can both fill it up from the perimeter. Georgia Tech possesses more size and athleticism than Loyola and seems like the bigger threat.

Sweet 16: Oklahoma State or Tennessee

For the sake of brevity, I’m assuming neither No. 12 Oregon State nor No. 13 Liberty gets to this point. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said the committee’s biggest mis-seeding was the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Lunardi had them pegged closer to a No. 2 seed than a No. 4. They have the second-most Quad One wins in the country, trailing only Illinois.

The Cowboys are led by Big 12 Player of the Year and projected No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham. Cunningham has lived up to the billing, but the improvements of the Cowboys’ role players are why they are much improved. The Cowboys have won eight of their last 10, with wins coming against Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Oklahoma at West Virginia, West Virginia and Baylor.

As far as a matchup goes, it may be the only time this season Illinois doesn’t have the best player on the floor. Cunningham is that special. But, Illinois should have a size advantage down low. Oklahoma State is athletic and rebounds well, but it doesn’t have anyone with Cockburn’s size. I think these are the two best teams in the region, and the winner of this hypothetical game would get to the Final Four.

But, for Oklahoma State to get there, they’ll need to scoot past Tennessee. The Volunteers have tons of talent and were a preseason top 10 team but never lived up to expectations. They showed signs of life in the SEC tournament, narrowly losing to Alabama. No team has more pro talent in this region than Rick Barnes’ squad, as freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are projected first-round draft picks. Johnson is a terrific athlete at 6-foot-5-inches, which would make for a fun matchup with Dosunmu. Inside, the Vols have Yves Pons who stands at just 6-foot-6-inches, but he is one of the strongest dudes in the sport. He blocked nine (yes, nine!) shots against Florida in the SEC quarterfinals.

The Vols’ lack of consistency and shooting make them the easier opponent, but neither matchup is great for the Illini in the Sweet 16.

Elite Eight: Houston or West Virginia

While the committee did not give Illinois a favorable draw up top, the bottom of the bracket is fairly easy compared to other regions. Because the s-curve doesn’t allow teams from the same conference to be the No. 1 and No. 2 seed, Illinois got the worst two seed, Houston, as the two seed in its region.

The Cougars took care of business in the American Athletic Conference, going 24-3, but they played a weaker schedule. They went just 2-1 against teams that made the tournament. Still, KenPom respects them, having Kelvin Sampson’s squad at No. 6. The Cougars’ strength is their three-headed backcourt in Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser and DeJon Jarreau, who combine for 42.6 points per game. But their lack of size inside — their starting center is just 6-foot-7-inches — and lack of an elite perimeter defender make them a favorable matchup for Illinois.

To me, the worst matchup for Illinois out of the bottom portion is West Virginia. The Mountaineers are 18-9, but all nine of their losses came against tournament teams. Their makeup is similar to Illinois, with a star guard and post presence they rely on. Miles McBride is their primary creator who gets it done on both ends, while 6-foot-10-inch Derek Culver is a menace inside. When role players like Sean McNeil, Taz Sherman and Jalen Bridges are making shots, the Mountaineers are tough to beat.

Winning in March isn’t easy, but Illinois is a No. 1 seed for a reason. When at its best, none of these teams can beat them. But, the tournament does crazy things, and anything is possible when the ball is tipped.

@BrandonSimberg

[email protected]