Sports staff breaks down Final Four, championship picks

For the first time since 2013, the Illini will be dancing in NCAA tournament, as they earned a 1-seed after amassing the most Quad 1 wins in all of college basketball, winning the Big Ten Tournament title and setting a program record with 16 Big Ten regular-season wins.
With the tournament around the corner, The Daily Illini sports staff broke down their Final Four and national champion picks. Let’s take a look at their predictions and rationale.

Jackson Janes, sports editor

Final Four: Gonzaga, Arkansas, Illinois, Alabama

This Illinois team has been special all year. Though the Illini are playing in a tough region, they have proven several times this year that they belong among the nation’s elite college teams, so I
penciled them in as the team coming out of the Midwest region. Gonzaga has been by far the best team in the country for the entirety of the season, so it was also a no-brainer to include it as the West region’s champion.
I went with two of the country’s hottest teams, both of which play in the Southeastern Conference, with my final two picks —Alabama and Arkansas — after both programs had tremendous regular-season campaigns. I’m not 100% confident with those last two predictions, but it’s called March Madness for a reason.
Based on how dominant Illinois and Gonzaga have been all season, I have them going to the national championship, with Brad Underwood’s squad edging out the No. 1 overall seed for the Illini’s first-ever NCAA title. With clutch shooting, lockdown defense and selfless guard play, the Illini will emerge as the best team in the nation when all is said and done.

@JacksonJanes3

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Gabby Hajduk, former sports editor

Final Four: Gonzaga, Arkansas, Illinois, Alabama

These four teams are some of the hottest programs in college basketball, and they would make some incredible matchups deep in the tournament. To me, Gonzaga and Illinois in the Final Four is a no-brainer. Sure, you can make the argument that Gonzaga hasn’t played a real contender in a while, but the Bulldogs still are so elite on both sides of the ball. They’ve also already dominated several teams they might face in the tournament like Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa.
Illinois is playing its best basketball right now. With Ayo Dosunmu performing at a pro level and role players finding their spots at the right time, it’ll be hard to stop the Illini from rolling through several teams.
Alabama and Arkansas are another pair of teams that have been on a hot streak. Prior to falling to LSU in the SEC tournament, both teams were handling their opponents and putting on impressive offensive performances. And while Alabama has the better record, Arkansas beat ­them about a month back, proving how strong of a program it is.
Ultimately, though, I think Gonzaga and Illinois meet in the championship, with the Bulldogs capping off an impressive season with a national championship. While the Illini are also elite on both ends of the court, I think the Bulldogs’ defense will be able to limit Dosunmu and Cockburn in a physical matchup. I do think it’ll come down to the final minute, and I just can’t count on Illinois making game-winning free throws.

@gabby_h11

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Brandon Simberg, men’s basketball beat writer

Final Four: Gonzaga, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Alabama

West: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are, and have been, the best team all season, and their path to the Final Four is easy. No-brainer here.
South: Baylor. Another no-brainer, as Baylor has been the second-best team in the country throughout the season. Ohio State has been stumbling as the No. 2 seed, so I think Baylor’s path is pretty easy.
Midwest: Oklahoma State. I think the Oklahoma State-Illinois game ultimately decides who makes the Final Four, but I’ll go with Cade Cunningham and the Cowboys. Upsets are bound to happen in March, and Cunningham is a guy that can make that happen.
East: Alabama. Without Isaiah Livers, the Wolverines have been vulnerable. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Texas is tough, but I trust Alabama’s weapons and No. 2-ranked defense.
Final Four: Gonzaga over Alabama. Too much firepower from the ‘Zags, who will end ‘Bama’s great season. Baylor over Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State just beat Baylor in the Big 12 tourney, but I think the Bears get their revenge here.
Final: Baylor over Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s undefeated season falls short, as Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler contain Jalen Suggs, and the Bears’ weapons hit enough shots to get them over the top.

@BrandonSimberg

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Will Payne, assistant sports editor

Final Four: Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois, Florida State

Gonzaga is one of the most efficient and well-organized teams in college basketball. Behind senior Corey Kispert and freshman Jalen Suggs, I fully expect the Bulldogs to roll through the West region.
Baylor is one of the best shooting teams in the country, and without many fans in the stands, I expect Jared Butler and MaCio Teague to come out firing on all cylinders.
The Illini have played out of their minds since their loss to Michigan State, as Ayo Dosunmu’s injury has really galvanized the troops for a deep March Madness run. With suffocating defense and a great offense, Illinois is the easy pick out of the Midwest region (knock on wood).
I love this Seminole team going into the tournament, as they boast one of the best offenses in all of college basketball and also rebound the ball well. I think they will give Michigan lots of trouble in this potential matchup.
This being the first March Madness without packed stadiums, I expect 1-seeds to do fairly well. Without the added pressure of thousands of fans in the crowd, the best teams in the country will be able to do what they do best, which is running their efficient offenses and clamping down on inferior competition on the defensive side of the ball. That is why I have three 1-seeds in my Final Four.
Final Four: I have Gonzaga defeating Florida State and Illinois defeating Baylor, setting up a national championship matchup between the Bulldogs and the Illini. In the national championship, I have Illinois defeating Gonzaga to win the 2021 NCAA tournament.
After watching every Illinois game this year, and of course being very biased, I cannot imagine a scenario in which Illinois is not cutting down the nets in Indianapolis this season. Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and the rest of the Illini have dominated this year, especially throughout the Big Ten Tournament. As long as Illinois continues to play lockdown defense and hit from three, I can see them victorious against the Bulldogs.

@will_payne33

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Josh Pietsch, assistant on-air editor

Final Four: Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois, Texas

Yeah, three 1-seeds is pretty basic, but I definitely think it’s justifiable for this year’s Final Four. This is one of those years where I think there are multiple teams that are a clear level above the rest, and those teams are Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois.
Gonzaga has beaten the second, third and fourth seeds in its region already this season, and despite playing in a less competitive conference, it would still take a major upset to keep Gonzaga out of the Final Four.
Baylor is a little different. The Bears’ defense under Scott Drew is as impressive as I’ve seen in defending guards, and their only two losses of the season came at Kansas and against a red-hot Cade Cunningham-led Oklahoma State team in the Big 12 Tournament. But, they’ve also slowed down since the beginning of the year and missed some games due to COVID-19. Though Ohio State isn’t a bad pick to get out of this region, I’m still pretty confidently going with Baylor and the best backcourt in the country out of the South region.
As far as Illinois goes, I think it drew by far the toughest 4-seed but also the easiest 2 and 3 seeds. The Sweet 16 should be an interesting test if they meet up with Cunningham, but if the Illini get through that, I see them with the best path to get to the Final Four other than the ‘Zags.
Now we get to the East. Michigan hasn’t looked the same since getting crushed by Illinois, and though I think UConn has a chance at a Cinderella-esque type run, I think it’ll be Shaka Smart and Texas returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2003. I don’t see them slowing down after a Big 12 championship, and I think they’ll upset Michigan in the Elite 8 to reach the Final Four.
Will one or more of these picks be wrong? Almost surely. But, I like what I’ve seen from these teams, and I also think we’ll see Gonzaga handle Texas and Illinois win a classic against Baylor to advance to the championship. And sorry Gonzaga fans, no undefeated year for you. I think it’ll be the Illini winning a close one over the ‘Zags in the final to win its first-ever national title.

@JPietsch14

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Claire O’Brien, sports video editor

Final Four: Virginia, Baylor, Illinois, Virginia

I’m certainly going to get at least one of these wrong, but I’m going with Alabama, Illinois, Baylor and Virginia — assuming they don’t have to back out — in the Final Four. Virginia and Alabama will face each other, while Illinois and Baylor will meet again. Illinois and Baylor played earlier this season, and Baylor easily won the matchup. Granted, things are different now; Baylor didn’t advance to the Big 12 title game while Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament, and I predict Illinois will go to the title game. In the other semifinal, Alabama will beat Virginia and go to its second “revenue sport” championship of the 2021 calendar year. In the title game, Illinois and Alabama would be pretty evenly matched, but a strong Illinois performance would ease Illini fans’ nerves, giving Illinois its first NCAA tournament title in program history.

@obrien_clairee

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Jonah Perez, beat writer

Final Four: Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Illinois, Florida State

I have the No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs beating the 3-seeded Florida State Seminoles, and 1-seed Illinois beating the 6-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders for spots in the national championship.
I believe Gonzaga will beat Illinois 64-58 in the national championship. The reason is because of the reliance on Ayo Dosunmu to always come through when they need him most. Nobody’s 100% at anything, and while Ayo is an amazing player, sooner or later he won’t come through when they need him. Not because he’s not good, but because nobody can come through every time.
I have questions about who will step up and close for him in the event it isn’t his night in the closing minutes of a nail-biter. Senior Trent Frazier is a good bet or even Andre Curbelo, but that hasn’t been their roles this season, and developing a closer mentality can take time.
Gonzaga is not just any team; they are undefeated and are a team with two potential top 10 picks in the NBA draft. They also have been here and done it many times before, and head coach Mark Few has experience in this situation.

@jonahap2

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Christian Jones, beat writer

Illinois is a 1-seed in the Big Dance for the first time since I learned how to read, so of course I have it going all the way. This isn’t just bias, though, as the Illini are a well-rounded team with scoring on all three levels and a solid defense. Their talent is legitimate, and they’re entering the tournament hot, winning 14 of their last 15 games. Talent and momentum are huge in this tournament.
I see some upsets coming in the rest of the field. Villanova will be missing its star guard, Collin Gillespie. This will hurt them on both sides of the ball, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose in the first round against Winthrop. Michigan State got off to a rough start, with several games postponed and players missing games throughout the year. However, they beat Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State late in the season. The Spartans have momentum, and they are more talented than their record shows. I see them as a Cinderella team this year.

@JonesChristianT

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Enji Erdenekhuyag, beat writer

Final Four: Gonzaga, Ohio State, Illinois, Alabama

The Big Ten champs are bound to win it all. There are few, if any, distinguishing characteristics from players who come off the bench because Illinois is stacked with well-rounded personnel who all collectively complement each other’s skills. Entering the Big Dance with momentum, the team has continuously proven they are capable of draining shots and defending the basket.
Granted, doing this against Gonzaga, the nation’s highest-scoring team that just so happens to also hold the best record in college basketball, will be trying — especially because the Illini are not without their own occasional faults — but that is all the more motivating. The championship game between the Illini and the Bulldogs will commence in a high-scoring, nail-biting fashion, but I would not expect, or want, anything less.

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