Stephen Cohn: Illinois 95, Drexel 70
Illinois, being a No. 1 seed, should play like a No. 1 seed. It’s still a little surreal watching ESPN or scrolling through Twitter and seeing ‘experts’ choose the Illini to head to the Final Four. What better way to make them look smart — and keep up the goodwill the Illini are building up — than a dominant blowout win against Drexel.
Have no mercy Friday afternoon. Scare the competition.
Tristen Kissack: Illinois 76, Drexel 57
They might have won the mascot competition, but that will be the only thing Drexel wins in this tournament.
The Illini are playing their best basketball of the entire season right now (as most Underwood teams tend to peak this time of year), and that shouldn’t change this weekend. The Dragons just don’t have an answer for the size of Kofi Cockburn, nor the athleticism to keep up with Illinois’ guards.
Keep everyone’s legs fresh, and let’s crack this thing open early.
Michael Berns: Illinois 81, Drexel 68
The Drexel Dragons gave up 80+ points just once this season, and that was in their season opener in a loss to Pittsburgh. The Pitt Panthers were the only Power 6 team Drexel played all season, and Pitt finished 12th out of 15 ACC teams and were never really in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid. Illinois has the 15th highest scoring offense in the country. Drexel has the 167th best. Pitt has the 179th best.
The Illini start out a little bit sluggish — this game is tied or close to it at the first media timeout, not an unusual or alarmist thing that happens when a 1 seed plays a 16 seed. Andre Curbelo enters the game, Adam Miller and Da’Monte hit a couple of 3s, and this thing starts to blow open, Drexel unable to fight back.
Matt Rejc: Illinois 90, Drexel 77
Illinois has put up tremendous amounts of points even against very talented opponents in recent weeks. Unfortunately for the Drexel Dragons, I’m pretty confident that the trend will continue in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament. There’s not much to say about this one, other than that it’s probably going to be the last time we see Zach Griffith take the court in an Illini uniform.
Drew Pastorek: Illinois 86, Drexel 64
Only one of the Dragons’ rotational players is taller than 6-foot-9, so I would expect Kofi Cockburn to be featured early and often. Drexel isn’t Chicago State or North Carolina A&T, but they shouldn’t be much of a match for the Illini’s high-octane offense. The Dragons will hang around for the first 15-20 minutes before being overwhelmed in the second half. Like Matt, I feel that this will be our last chance to enjoy seeing some walk-ons in action.
Jeff Horwitz: Illinois 85, Drexel 60
Based on Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, this year’s Big Ten was its second most competitive season behind 1988-89, and it was the seventh best conference ever after the 2016-17 Big 12 (and several iterations of the ACC). And the Illini just won the conference tournament. Basically, I think Illinois will be fine against Drexel. But let’s say that Kofi gets into foul trouble early. Giorgi showed in the Big Ten title game (and against Baylor) that he’s more than capable of taking over when Kofi’s on the bench. Savor this moment while you can. Seriously. It will likely be Illinois’s only easy W in the dance.
Quentin Wetzel: Illinois 82, Drexel 61
In all likelihood, Illinois will win this game, and it probably won’t be particularly close. That’s just how 1-16 games work. But as UMBC taught us three years ago, nothing is ever guaranteed, so let’s try to play out a scenario where Drexel could win.
First, Drexel would need to shoot well, and Illinois would need to go cold from deep. Three-point shooting is notoriously volatile from game to game, so this isn’t that far-fetched.
Second, Drexel would need to get Kofi Cockburn in foul trouble. This seems unlikely, as Drexel typically doesn’t draw many fouls (it ranks 253rd in free throw rate) and Kofi hasn’t fouled out all year. He has been called for four fouls in five of the last six games though, so getting him in foul trouble is possible.
Lastly, Drexel would need to grind the game to a halt. The Dragons like to slow games down, as they play at the 18th-slowest pace in the country, and keeping Illinois out of transition would give Drexel a chance against the Illini’s superior athletes.
Also, if the Dragons can minimize the number of possessions, they’re more likely to keep the game within reach at the end. It’s not impossible to envision Drexel winning this game, or at least keeping it close. After all, the Dragons are the best 16 seed. But a lot would need to go wrong for this to be a close game, and even then, Illinois would still likely win just based on talent alone. There’s a reason Illinois is a 1 seed, and the Illini are far superior to Drexel in every way. This one shouldn’t be too stressful.