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Four Teams to Watch in Illinois’ Region

Some intriguing matchups may await the Illini.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that a somewhat important college basketball tournament starts this week. And our crack research staff here at The Champaign Room has informed me that the Illinois Fighting Illini are actually partcipating in it! How neat!

Illinois (23-6) garnered a No. 1 seed in the “Midwest” region and will face 16-seed Drexel on Friday afternoon. We don’t expect much resistance from the Dragons (unless they bring out an ACTUAL dragon), but there are several other teams worth keeping an eye on. Let’s meet ‘em.

West Virginia (3)

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Mountaineers will be making their 30th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and their 10th during head coach Bob Huggins’ tenure in Morgantown. West Virginia (18-9) earned a three-seed this season and finished 11-6 in a rugged Big 12. They will most certainly be tourney-tested — all of the Mountaineers’ losses came against NCAA Tournament participants. They are led by 6-foot-10 forward Derek Culver (pictured), who averages nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

This year’s team isn’t as stout defensively as the Huggins-led teams of seasons past, but the Mountaineers are 11th in KenPom in offensive efficiency (116.8 points per 100 possessions) and WVU is also respectable 35.8% from three.

The Mountaineers open with 14-seed Morehead State, a squad that knocked out top-seeded Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament final.

Oklahoma State (4)

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Oklahoma State vs Baylor
Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham was named Big 12 Freshman and Player of the Year.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This is the Illini’s most exciting potential matchup in the Midwest region. The Cowboys (20-8) boast 6-foot-8 point guard Cade Cunningham, the presumptive top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. He’s only the fourth player in history to be crowned Big 12 Freshman and Player of the Year, joining Marcus Smart, Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. Viewers will be glued to their screens if the basketball gods bless us with an Ayo-Cade showdown in the Sweet Sixteen.

And I’ll also give some love to former Illini-by-proxy Bernard Kouma, who has filled a Jermaine Hamlin or Coleman Hawkins-like role for OSU.

Mike Boynton has done a tremendous job in Stillwater helping turn Oklahoma State into one of the better programs in the Big 12 — say, I wonder what happened to the last guy who coached the Cowboys?

OSU draws Atlantic Sun champ and 13-seed Liberty in the Round of 64.

Tennessee (5)

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State
Yves Pons (#35) leads Tennessee with 47 blocked shots this season.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers have had a topsy-turvy season. Rick Barnes’ team enters March Madness at 18-8, but they finished just 8-7 in its last 15 games. Most of Tennessee’s success can be attributed to its defense — the Vols finished No. 4 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating and held opponents to 39.8% field goal shooting, good for 19th in D-1. Tennessee also forces nearly 16 turnovers per game and is top-20 in blocks with 4.9 per game. Senior swingman Yves Pons leads the team in rejections (47) and is a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

The Illini have struggled against teams with length, and Tennessee can defend at the rim and on the perimeter.

The Vols are pitted against the surprising 12-seed Oregon State Beavers, who clinched an auto-bid by upsetting Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament title game.

Loyola-Chicago (8)

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament-Indiana State vs Loyola
Loyola-Chicago leads the nation in scoring defense.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The second-best team in Illinois may very well square off against Illinois in the Round of 32. As far as potential second-round matchups go, the Illini could be in for a challenge. Porter Moser’s Ramblers (24-4) are ranked No. 9 in KenPom and lead the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 55.5 ppg this season. They play at a very deliberate pace, which may frustrate an up-tempo team like Illinois.

Senior big man Cameron Krutwig (pictured above) was a freshman when Loyola made its Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018, and is now the Ramblers’ best player. Nobody would dare say Krutwig is more athletic than Kofi Cockburn, but at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, he can absorb contact and potentially agitate Kofi in the paint.

Loyola takes on 9-seed Georgia Tech, who received an automatic bid by winning the ACC Tournament.

It’s worth noting that SEVEN of the nation’s 26 best scoring defenses reside in the Illini’s region, including each of the top three — Loyola, Houston (#2), Liberty (#3), San Diego State (#8), Tennessee (#14) Clemson (#23), Morehead State (#26) — though these teams probably haven’t gone against too many athletes like Ayo, Kofi, and Curbelo.

We’re six wins away. Let the Madness begin!!