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Tougher tests ahead for the Illini

The Illini’s signature recipe of interior and transition offensive dominance overwhelmed Drexel.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After a sluggish start, Illinois quickly regained form and dispatched Drexel, powered by Andre Curbelo’s entry into the game that quickly gave the Illini a 9-8 lead soon after that they would never surrender.

While other higher-seeded teams like Arkansas and Ohio State played sluggishly for long stretches of their opening round games, the Illini turned in an impressive performance and proved worthy of their top seeding. The triple wasn’t a featured part of the offense in this one, but it didn’t need to be. They imposed their will on the Dragons, owning the paint offensively and locking things down defensively.

Let’s dive into what went right for the Illini.

Keys to Victory

As many teams saw in the Big Ten this season, Kofi Cockburn (18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks) is a game-wrecking force, and his dominance continued from the jump. Whether it was his emphatic block in the first half or his many throw downs at the rim courtesy of Ayo Dosunmu, Drexel had no answer for him, and Illinois exploited this time and again.

The All-American Dosunmu started out slow in the first half, but some activity on the defensive end (3 steals) got him into rhythm with his offensive game, finishing with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists. The well-rounded contributions from the rest of the lineup proved to be too much firepower for the Dragons to keep pace with, including double-figure performances from Adam Miller and Trent Frazier.

Energy from Jacob Grandison (8 points, 5 rebounds) helped to neutralize some of the early impact that Drexel center James Butler (10 rebounds) had on the boards.

The Illini played a clean overall game as well, surrendering on 4 free throw attempts and 5 total turnovers to the Dragons. The Illini’s 19 assists on 36 made field goals show their willingness to share the ball and the multitude of scoring options they possess, powering their run of 15 victories in their last 16 outings.

Illinois’ defensive activity, interior dominance, fluid ball movement, and bench depth will all be key as they look to continue their successful run in the next round.

Next Up

The Illini will take on Loyola-Chicago in the round of 32 on Sunday.

Loyola-Chicago is anchored by Missouri Valley Player of the Year Cameron Krutwig (15 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3 assists), who was a key cog in their Final Four run in 2018, as well as MVC Defensive Player of the Year Lucas Williamson (7.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game), following former Rambler Ben Richardson who won the award in 2018.

Illinois is 12-3 all-time against the in-state Ramblers.

For a season already rife with historical significance and achievement, these Illini are hoping for more to solidify their place in Illini basketball lore. If they continue their dominating ways on the glass, in the paint, and out in transition, I like their odds to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.