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Illinois Basketball: 2021 NCAA Tournament Champions

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It’s not far-fetched this time.

262 days later after The Block, we made it.

No longer do we have to bask in the glory of Kofi’s last-second stuff of Luka Garza to secure a win over Iowa and push the Illini into the conference’s top-four seeds and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

No, we made it. We get new highlights, new stories, and new chances at a NCAA Tournament.

The drought lives on, mostly with an asterisk after COVID-19 canceled this year’s March Madness.

But we’re back. The season is now underway, and it’s time to win.

We’ve wrote this article before on this site for the Illini, but it’s always been far fetched. This time, it is not.

This is how Illinois win the 2021 National Championship.

This article takes liberty with the assumption there will be no coronavirus cancellations in the schedule, which is very unlikely.

The Cupcakes

The days of Illinois struggling with Chattanooga or Florida Atlantic are long and gone. I won't waste time here. The Illini will run through the low-major gauntlet of North Carolina A&T, Chicago State, Ohio and whoever gets added to the schedule for Dec. 5.

The Non-Conference Challenges

This includes Baylor, Duke and, ummmm, Mizzou? Lock Braggin’ Rights in as a win, while the others will certainly be good measuring sticks early on.

With a schedule like this, and to keep things somewhat realistic in this exercise, the Illini probably split those two. I’d prefer the win on the road (even if it will feel like a neutral site) at Duke, rather than the one of Baylor in Indy. It’d just feel great to see Ayo and Adam stomp Whitney Young alum DJ Steward at Cameron Indoor. Illinois might get another chance against Baylor anyway....

After non-con, we’re looking at a 6-1 team with road wins over Duke and Mizzou. Solid, still top-10.

The Rest of 2020

There’s four conference games before the calendar (thankfully) flips to 2021. This is also the period where the bench comes up BIG. Give me all the freshmen early on in conference play to get them ready for the stretch run as Curbelo and Miller hand the Illini a 3-1 start in conference play — Rutgers at the RAC doesn’t give me happy feelings, ya feel?

Hello, 2021, the Illini are 9-2 (3-1), and hovering around the top-15.

January

Alrighty, it’s 2021 and this is the year Illinois’ NCAA Tournament drought OFFICIALLY ends. And it ends with a bang.

January starts off with a home match against Purdue (W), road game in Evanston (W) and then Maryland at SFC (W) and Nebraska in Lincoln (W). That sets up a huge home game against a ranked Ohio State squad in Champaign on Saturday, Jan. 16. Sounds like a good chance for a nationally televised matchup with early Big Ten supremacy on the line. In the 11 a.m. game, Ayo goes OFF, and this truly starts what will be a legendary season.

Sitting at 14-2, Illinois gets Penn State at home (W) before we learn how good the team really is. January ends with MSU in Lansing (upset W, Trent with the buzzer-beater) and Iowa at home. The Illini end the month with a loss to the Hawkeyes. Iowa is suddenly No. 1 in the country after this game, but Illinois will get another shot at Fran and Luka soon.

It’s the end of January, Illinois is 16-3 (10-2) (losses so far to Duke OR Baylor, Rutgers in Piscataway, and No. 1 Iowa).

February/March

The regular season is winding down, and this team is clearly the best since 2005. And it’s time for Ayo and Kofi to really show out, mostly because February is full of ranked matchups for the top-10 Illini.

Illinois demolishes Indiana at Assembly Hall, sending Archie to the hot seat (again). The Illini’s first game against Wisconsin this year on Feb. 6 is another 11 a.m. game on CBS, and Nate Reuvers gets embarrassed by Kofi, who goes off for a career-high 35. That sets up Illinois heading to a house of horrors in Ann Arbor, where Ayo hits another buzzer-beater, making it two straight years sending Juwan Howard to the showers a loser.

At 19-3, someone has to be the trap game. And that ends up being Northwestern at home on Feb. 16. Ayo has one of the worst games of his career, leading to this comment after the game. “That’s on me, we’re better than that. Just watch. We’ve got this.”

And boy, do they got this. A motivated Illini teams runs through its next two opponents, beating Minnesota and Nebraska by a combined 55 points. Illinois follows it up with a sweep over Wisconsin, this time at an empty Kohl Center, making it two straight years with a win there as well. The regular season closes with a close loss at Ohio State, who clinches a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament with the win, joining Iowa (18-2), Illinois (16-4) and Wisconsin (15-5) atop the conference.

Illinois finishes the regular season at 22-5. Nine wins away from a title.

Big Ten Tournament

The Big Ten Tournament returns to the United Center after one night of games was hosted in Indianapolis last season before the cancelation. Ayo, like LeBron during most playoff runs, turns off his social media.

“#UnfinishedBusiness.” one final tweet reads. The rest of the team follows suit.

“Have you noticed this team is special,” Underwood says in his pre-tournament press conference. “They’re going to win this thing.”

Those comments make the national talk shows on ESPN, with Stephen A. Smith saying it’s “BLASPHEMY,” and that No. 7 Illinois isn’t good enough to win the conference title, let alone a championship.

Wrong.

Quarterfinals of the tournament, Illinois and Northwestern. Illini don’t slip up this time, and beat them by 30, including a breakout game from Andre Curbelo, who records his first double-double, and adds six assists off the bench, marking his first time not in the starting lineup since late January. “We needed Belo’s energy in the second unit tonight, and Da’Monte in the lineup,” Underwood notes.

Moving on to the semis. All top-four seeds are still alive, starting with Illinois and Wisconsin. Greg Gard’s team is motivated after losing its last three to Illinois, but Kofi again is too much for the Badgers’ big men. Going off for 25 and 15, and Ayo adding 25 pushes Illinois to the conference championship.

That’s where they meet still-No. 1 Iowa.

In a pseudo-play-in game for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it heads to OT. The Illini held a 10-point lead for the most of the second half, but a pair of costly turnovers from Trent in the final two minutes led to a pair of Iowa threes. In overtime, Ayo takes over, going off for eight points and handing the Illini a 89-83 win and their first Big Ten title since 2005.

Illinois enters Selection Sunday 25-5.

First Weekend

The drought is over.

The Illini are named a No. 1 seed (along with Gonzaga, Baylor and Virginia) in the NCAA Tournament, which doesn’t give them much advantage with the entire tournament being played in Indianapolis in front of limited fans. Still, Illinois appreciates the opportunity as it cakewalks through the first weekend with wins over No. 16 Coppin State, 100-56, and No. 8 Saint Louis, 75-60.

Second Weekend

Michigan State in a down year ended up with a No. 11 seed as one of the First Four games. But Tom Izzo works his magic with a depleted roster, working his way to the Sweet 16 where they meet the Illini. MSU takes a 15-point lead up 40-25 to the locker rooms, and there’s obvious certainty after Ayo and Trent combine for just two points in the first half. It doesn’t get much better in the second half, but Adam Miller steps up and plays like the top-50 recruit he was asked to be, scoring 23 points. Illinois makes its free throws late and advances to the Elite Eight with a 65-62 win.

Ayo and Trent don’t have those issues two days later in the regional finals. With no bit of irony, Illinois gets Arizona in the Elite Eight — again. This time, no comeback necessary. Dosunmu goes off for a Carsen Edwardsesque game, scoring 43 points, including a highlight dunk that makes the top play on SportsCenter’s Top Ten. Champaign goes wild, safely, as vaccines are a week away from distribution and Illinois is headed to the Final Four.

Final Four

Four teams remain. Illinois has lost to two of them this year: Iowa and Baylor. The fourth team, Gonzaga.

Illinois’ Final Four matchup is with Iowa, because, why not? It’s the final college game for either Ayo or Luka Garza, and it’s the rubber match for the season series.

Fast forward to the last 10 seconds, Illinois trails by one and has the ball. Neither team has any timeouts left after the Illini took their last one, so they're tossing the ball in near half court. Trent handles the inbound pass, and passes off to Ayo, who gets a screen from Curbelo. Driving to the left, he’s blocked, and the ball ends up in the hands of Giorgi Bezhanishvili. As the clock expires, Giorgi throws it up from the corner.

Buckets.

“GIORGI BUCKETSHVILI!” Jim Nantz screams.

Fran McCaffery rushes to the scorer’s table, claiming the shot was off too late after the clock hit zero. It’s reviewed, and it counted. Illinois knocks off Iowa. 72-71, and heads to the championship game.

National Championship

Illinois won’t get a chance to get revenge at Baylor after Gonzaga got the W pretty easily.

There’s not much to say about this game, other than it lacked drama. And it ended with orange and blue streamers rushing down in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Illinois goes 31-5.

The Aftermath

They did it. They really did it.

Illinois won the national championship.

“This is Illinois Basketball,” Underwood says, trying to hold back the tears. “I said I wouldn’t cry, but I’m going to cry.”

Giorgi is seen dancing on the court, doing some kind of salsa with Trent. Kofi is hugging everyone in sight, while Da’Monte holds up the trophy.

“What can I say,” Ayo says as he smirks following the championship. “I said unfinished business.”

Let’s finish it.