After eight long years, Illinois Basketball is finally back in the NCAA Tournament, and things look a bit different this time around. Back in 2013, making the tournament at all was a success. There was no expectation that Illinois would make much noise in March. This year, it’s different. The Illini have a chance to make a deep run in the coming weeks, and the road to the Final Four starts Friday afternoon against Drexel.
Let’s take a look at Illinois’ potential matchups this weekend.
16 seed: Drexel
Record (Conference): 12-7 (4-5)
AP Poll: N/A
Drexel is bad.
Okay, I shouldn’t have said that. The Dragons did just win their conference tournament, and, at least in the eyes of KenPom, they are the best 16 seed. I guess they’re not completely awful.
Still, there’s just not a lot of talent here. Junior guard Camren Wynter leads Drexel with 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game, so if anyone can give the Illini some trouble, it’s him. Drexel made 77.7% of its free throws this year too, good for 22nd in the country. They won’t just beat themselves.
Even so, Illinois should not have any problems on Friday (key word: should).
9 seed: Georgia Tech
Record (Conference): 17-8 (11-6)
AP Poll: 26th (Receiving votes)
Georgia Tech enters the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, winning its final eight games en route to the ACC Tournament championship. However, the Yellow Jackets just suffered the massive loss of ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright. Due to COVID-19 protocols, Georgia Tech will be without its big man on Friday and again on Sunday if it were to advance.
Losing Wright is a huge blow for Josh Pastner’s squad, as no other players in Georgia Tech’s rotation even remotely resemble a real center. There’s a reason he played over 35 minutes a game this season.
Without Wright, the Yellow Jackets will likely be forced to play a lot of five-guard lineups, but they may be better prepared for this than most teams. Georgia Tech plays an aggressive style of defense that forces a lot of turnovers, led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jose Alvarado with 3.0 steals per game. Playing small ball may force the Yellow Jackets to lean into this style even more, as they won’t be able to match up physically with opposing bigs.
Speaking of opposing bigs… yeah, Kofi Cockburn would eat them alive if they were to play in the second round. But without Wright, Georgia Tech probably won’t get there in the first place. Illinois’ more likely second round opponent is...
8 Seed: Loyola Chicago
Conference: Missouri Valley
Record (Conference): 24-4 (16-2)
AP Poll: 17th
Remember when Sister Jean and the Ramblers danced all the way to the Final Four three years ago? Well, this year’s team is even better. Led by All-American center Cameron Krutwig, Loyola has won 17 of its past 18 games, with the one loss coming at current 11-seed Drake by 1 point in overtime. It’s not just that its schedule has been easy either; Loyola is 17th in the AP poll, and it’s a top 10 team in KenPom’s rankings. The Ramblers are the real deal.
Loyola dominated the Missouri Valley this season on the back of its defense, which is arguably the best in the country. Here’s a good primer on just what makes its defense so great.
In large part because of their defense, I expect the Ramblers to win on Friday, and if they do they could give Illinois a real test in the second round. I won’t be too worried though. Loyola is good, but it hasn’t played a team nearly as athletic as Illinois all season. And Kofi Cockburn is one of the few bigs that Krutwig (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) can’t physically overpower. Simply put, Illinois is just more talented than Loyola is.
With that being said, if anybody is going to beat Illinois this weekend, it’s Loyola. And we’ve seen what the Ramblers can do in March. But with any luck, Illinois will be headed to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 16 years. I can’t wait.