Selection Sunday has come and gone and the brackets have officially been revealed. The Illinois Fighting Illini (22-9) are headed to Pittsburgh as the No. 4 seed in the South region — isn’t geography cool?!
If you’ve watched any Fighting Illini game recently, you’ve likely heard various college hoops analysts rave about this team, proclaiming that Illinois has “Final Four potential” or “as much talent as anyone.” While it’s easy to look at the Illini on paper and say those things, it’s difficult to actually think that based on recent results.
HOWEVER...perhaps this ultimately works in Illinois’ favor. In a single-elimination tournament you truly never know how things will unfold (I’m looking at you, Oral Roberts & Oregon State). So I’m choosing to approach this season’s NCAA Tournament the same way I would any other that the Illini are competing in.
Here are four teams* that could stand in Illinois’ way on the path to New Orleans.
*For this exercise I’ll ignore Arizona — they are the top seed and the Illini already played them. We’re also skipping Chattanooga — there will be enough discussion here about the opening round game — and fellow Big Ten members Michigan & Ohio State.
While Arizona may be the odds-on favorite to get to the Final Four, don’t sleep on these Wildcats. Villanova has won five in a row and seven of its last eight, including the Big East Tournament championship game. Jay Wright is one of the best coaches in the profession and has two recent national titles to his credit (2016, 2018). ‘Nova also has one of the best on-court leaders in the country in guard Collin Gillespie (pictured above).
The fifth-year senior leads the Wildcats in scoring (15.9 ppg) while shooting 42.2% from three and 89.4% from the foul line. The 6-foot-3 Gillespie is a lot like Illinois’ Trent Frazier — he’s tough, experienced, dependable and does everything well.
The Wildcats are a veteran, well-rounded, tournament-tested group that won’t flinch in the moment. And while Arizona plays at warp speed, these Wildcats play at a very deliberate pace — 345th out of 358 teams in KenPom’s adjusted tempo rankings (62.6 possessions per 40 minutes).
It’s also safe to assume that there will be plenty of ‘Nova fans making the 300-mile trek from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh this weekend, which could give the Wildcats an extra jolt.
Villanova (26-7) tips off Friday against the Fightin’ Blue Hens of Delaware.
Rick Barnes’ Vols were bracketed along with Illinois in last season’s tournament, but were ousted in the first round by Oregon State during the Beavers’ unlikely run to the Elite Eight. This time around the Volunteers (26-7) enter the Big Dance on a heater, winners of seven straight.
Much like last year’s squad, Tennessee is terrific defensively — the Volunteers are ranked third in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, surrendering just 86.2 points per 100 possessions — but they are much better offensively this season thanks to the combo of Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler (pictured above). A 6-foot-3 guard from Uruguay, Vescovi leads Tennessee with 95 triples, while Chandler leads the team in scoring (14.8 ppg), assists (4.6 apg) and steals (2.1 spg)
After winning the SEC Tournament on Sunday, many pundits thought the Volunteers were in line for a two-seed. Instead, UT will square off with 14-seed Longwood in Indianapolis Thursday afternoon.
Houston Cougars (5)
Houston was the 2-seed in Illinois’ region last season and reached the Final Four for the first time since the “Phi Slama Jama” days of Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1980s. The Cougars could match up with the Fighting Illini in the Round of 32.
Kelvin Sampson has revitalized the Cougar program, averaging 28 wins over the past five years. Houston won the AAC regular season and tournament titles despite losing leading scorer Marcus Sasser and key contributor Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries. This can mostly be attributed to the Cougars’ ferocious defense. Houston has held opponents to just 58.9 ppg, 90.9 points per 100 possessions and averages 8.2 steals per game.
The Cougars don’t have a ton of quality victories on their resume — hence their seed — but are still ranked 4th overall in KenPom. They’ll be a difficult out in the Big Dance, and the 29-win Cougars face Conference USA champ UAB in the first round Friday.
Colorado State Rams (6)
CSU (25-5) finished second in a Mountain West conference that put four teams into the field. The Rams have two victories over league champ Boise State, two versus Wyoming and a win against San Diego State to their credit. Plus, Colorado State also defeated Mississippi State, Creighton and St. Mary’s in the non-conference.
Junior forward David Roddy leads the Rams in points and rebounds, and is a tricky positional matchup due to his thick stature at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds. Roddy is an efficient scorer who can stretch the floor (52.2% FG, 45.5% 3-pt). Who would Brad Underwood potentially give this defensive assignment to? Kofi? Da’Monte? BBV? We won’t get the chance to find out unless the Rams & Illini meet in the Elite Eight.
Just to add a fun little tidbit, Colorado State also features Illinois natives Kendle Moore (Danville) and Isaiah Rivera (Geneseo).
I’m sure I’m not the only Illini fan pulling for the Rams, who play the 11-seed Michigan Wolverines to open the tournament Thursday morning.
The South Region is absolutely STACKED. The Illini are ranked 17th in KenPom — by all the metrics they are a very, very talented team! — yet they have to go through Villanova (11th), Tennessee (7th), Houston (4th) and Arizona (2nd) to advance to New Orleans. And each of the top ELEVEN seeds in Illinois’ region are rated 38th or higher.
The looming question seems to be: “Can Illinois get past the first weekend?” If they advance past the first two rounds, it’s certainly feasible that they can go even further.
Let’s have some fun. I-L-L!