Illinois sports fans often face an existential conundrum each December and March. We’re sports fans first. We love college football and college basketball, and then — for the joy and for the heartache — we love the Illinois Fighting Illini.
When our Illini fail to reach the postseason, whether it’s college football bowl season or March Madness, we squirm. We know we can’t keep our eyes off of the action, but deep down, we’re distraught, for we know this could be so much better if the Orange & Blue were competing. There’s always next year.
In the meantime, here are some NCAA Tournament teams to root for:
Kansas State Wildcats (No. 4 seed in South Regional)
Who do they play in the opening round?: UC Irvine Anteaters
Why you should cheer for K-State: To quote Colin Cowherd (who says a lot of dumb things, but on this point he’s right), “Good people can get divorced. It happens all of the time.” Bruce Weber was a good coach and a great ambassador for the university on the national stage. He simply plateaued and Illinois Basketball was trending downward toward the end of his tenure in Champaign. There is no reason to hold any ill-will toward Bruce Weber. Illinois wanted to sever ties, and it was the right move for both parties at the time.
Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs (No. 16 seed in South Regional)
Who do they play in the opening round?: Virginia Cavaliers
Why you should cheer for the Runnin’ Bulldogs: This is the first NCAA Tournament appearance ever for Gardner Webb, the Big South Conference Tournament Champions. The small, private Baptist university is located in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in Charlotte’s metropolitan area.
Strange fact: Illinois played and beat Gardner Webb by just one point in 2012-13, the last year the Illini reached the NCAA Tournament. To date, that is the only time the two schools have played one another. Four Illini players had exactly 13 points in the game seven years ago: Brandon Paul, Joe Bertrand, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.
Bradley Braves (No. 15 seed in East Regional)
Who do they play in the opening round?: Michigan State Spartans
Why you should cheer for BU: If you’ve grown up and lived in Illinois most of your life, you likely know someone who went to Bradley. This is the first time in 13 years Bradley is going to the Big Dance. Bradley is a deep team, and unlike a lot of lower-seeded teams, the Braves do not rely on just one or two main players.
Strange fact: Bradley is loaded with international players. Half of the team hails from a country outside of the United States. South Sudan, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Cameroon and Netherlands are all represented on this squad representing a small private school in central Illinois.
Temple Owls (First Four; 11-seed in East Regional)
Who do they play in the opening round?: Belmont Bruins
Why you should cheer for Temple: Leading scorer Shizz Alston has a great name and has unlimited range on his shot. Owls head coach Fran Dunphy is retiring once Temple is bounced from the Tournament, and he is a Philadelphia-area college coaching legend. Seventeen years and 10 NCAA Tournament appearances with the Pennsylvania Quakers. Thirteen years and eight NCAA Tournament appearances at Temple. For a man who grew up and spent most of his life living, playing and coaching in Philly, he’s had a career worth acknowledging and celebrating.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (No. 1 seed in West Regional)
Who do they play in the opening round?: Winner of Fairleigh Dickinson/Prairie View A&M in First Four.
Why you should cheer for Gonzaga?: It might seem crazy to pull for a team that was so dominant all season long and was pretty much locked in as a No. 1 seed from the start of the college basketball campaign back in November, but Gonzaga still has yet to win a NCAA Title after coming so close in 2017. The ‘Zags are now a household name and are led by coach Mark Few who could land a job anywhere else, but prefers to remain in eastern Washington.
For a small school with roughly 5,000 undergraduate students, in many ways Gonzaga is the anti-UNC, Michigan State, Kentucky, etc. Twenty straight NCAA Tournament appearances (despite playing in the not-so-mighty West Coast Conference) is nothing short of amazing.
Just for fun: Teams to root against in the NCAA Tournament
All Big Ten Teams with an exception: It is perfectly acceptable to root for another Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament if and only if (anyone miss Geometry?) a family member or significant other/spouse attends or attended a Big Ten school and is emotionally invested in their team’s tournament success.
Your fiancé is an Ohio State alum and bleeds scarlet and gray? Have at it! Your nephew is a junior at Iowa and only cares about the Hawkeyes football program, and only started watching the basketball team Thursday night when they beat Illinois? No way! In that case, root against Iowa.
Duke Blue Devils: We get it. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish are good players. Top-5 NBA Draft pick type players. Coach K is a good coach. ESPN and the national sports media forces Duke upon us even when we try so hard not to look. Duke Basketball = Alabama Football. Best coaches. Best players. Inequitable recruiting prowess.
Houston Cougars: Kelvin Sampson has a terrible reputation as a cheater. His recruiting violations when he was head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers (2006-08) forced him to resign from his post. Kelvin Sampson also went hard at recruiting Eric Gordon —who was already a verbal commit to Illinois — to stay home (Gordon is from Indianapolis) and attend school at IU.
Auburn Tigers: Bruce Pearl successfully tried to de-stabilize the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program with the whole Deon Thomas situation. Pearl had a successful stint at Tennessee before digging himself into a huge mess. According to this ESPN article, Pearl was “cited for impermissible contact with student-athletes during an unofficial recruiting visit, for not being ethical about the matter, for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance, and for failing to monitor the activities of his assistant coaches.” Pearl’s had issues almost everywhere he’s been.
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