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Illinois’ challenging path to the Sweet 16

The Illini are looking to end an 18-year drought.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue
Brad Underwood reaches the NCAA Tournament for the 7th time in his 10-year head coaching career. He’s never been to the Sweet 16.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Monday, Illini Nation!

Perhaps, more importantly: Happy NCAA Tournament week! How much joy the tournament brings Illinois’ fans this year has been a hotly contested debate since being bounced by 15 points last spring by Houston.

I’ll provide some realistic optimism, and shed insight on what the path forward reveals.

To get to the programs’ first Sweet 16 since Deron Williams departed Champaign for Salt Lake City in the 2005 NBA Draft, Illinois will have to beat two preseason Top 10 teams: Arkansas and Kansas. This is definitely a road less traveled, as Illinois is currently a clear underdog in its first-round game against arguable the SEC’s most talented roster, save Alabama.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Texas A&M vs Arkansas
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman’s season did not go as planned, much like Illinois. The Muss Bus has two-straight Elite Eights. This is his fourth season at the helm for Arkansas.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Fighting Illini and head coach Brad Underwood earned a No. 9 seed in the West, punching their ticket aboard the NCAA Express to face No. 8 Arkansas on TBS starting at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. The game will be played in Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena.

The tournaments have been few and far between since the last time the Illini made the Sweet 16. Hard to believe it’s been 18 years, and 17 tournaments since the squad has made it to the second weekend.

This has not been the case for either of Illinois’ opponents. Arkansas and head coach Eric Musselman have made back-to-back Elite Eights. Former Illinois head man Bill Self needs no introduction or back enlightenment. Kansas won it all last year, cementing Self’s legacy as a multiple national championship coach.

The Illini’s length in the tournament is more about them, and less about their opponent.

What a wild, strange trip it’s been in the 2022-23 regular season for Illinois. Bemoaning dissent and rampant pessimism sandwiched around unfettered belief and social media turmoil. The coaching staff is now flip-flopping on sideline attire, opting for athleisure once again.

The reason I say it’s more about “them” than who they play, is because it’s the truth.

Statistically speaking and from a team profile outlook, Illinois is bettered by both of its likely opponents in the opening rounds. According to KenPom, both Kansas and Arkansas are in the top 16 in DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating). This seems like a bad omen for the offensively challenged Illini.

Here’s what Illinois has done against the best DER’s they’ve played this season:

  • #1 UCLA: W, 79-70 in Vegas behind Terrence Shannon Jr.’s defining performance. Shannon was 8-of-9 from three (29 points) and the Illini came back from down 15 in the second half.
  • #5 Rutgers: W, 69-60 in Champaign, buoyed by a 20-0 second half run.
  • #11 Texas: W, 85-78 in overtime at Madison Square Garden. This was the Matthew Mayer coming out party. The Illini were down seven in the final minutes, but were able to force OT. Shannon had 14 points in OT.
  • #13 Northwestern: (1-1), railroaded in Evanston and an epic 18-point comeback in Champaign. Shannon had another all-world performance, with 24 points in the second half alone. The first meeting doesn’t count, mostly because I say so.
NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Main Event-Illinois at UCLA
TSJ from downtown in Vegas, baby! The T Mobile Arena was Champaign West and I lost a c note on Roulette in one spin. Green 0 did NOT hit after the game.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

There are two themes against elite defenses. Terrence Shannon seems to play great against high-level defensive competition and the Illini are NEVER out it.

When Illinois takes good shots and gets to the bucket and the line, it has a chance to be a really good offensive team over stretches of games. During a single contest in win-or-go-home scenarios like the NCAA Tournament, Illinois can be elite and beat anyone on any given Sunday, or Thursday/Saturday, as it were.

Listen to Al Pacino fire up the boys before the Arkansas game Thursday. Best speech in cinematic history. Miss me with the William Wallace garble.

Arkansas brings a bevy of challenges. The most concerning is the small man roaming its sidelines.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, Musselman is an absolute stud coach. As a former NBA head coach and resurrecting Nevada from the depths of hell, The Muss Bus has quickly righted the ship for Arkansas. He managed to beat all-world Gonzaga last year in the tourney in the Sweet 16, before the Coach K Retirement Tour finally ended his run in the Elite 8.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Texas A&M vs Arkansas
If Illinois can force Arkansas into a bunch of threes, this is what Musselman will look like as time expires.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Musselman is a straight-up tactician. No two ways about it. He’s fiery, demonstrative and is not afraid to get on an official or two. He profiles similarly to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.

Arkansas has the biggest team in America and has the second-highest minute continuity.

Illinois will beat Arkansas if two things happen:

  1. They make Arkansas shoot a bunch of threes. Arkansas is putrid behind the arc, just like Illinois...but worse. Arkansas shoots 28.2% from three, bad for 346th in the nation. Expected points per shot: 0.85 points per three. Arkansas is also 346th in percentage of total points behind the arc.
  2. Make Coleman Hawkins go onto the right block and use his size and offensive IQ to get easy buckets in the lane and set up his teammates on kickouts. Underwood did this in small stretches against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament loss in Chicago.

Illinois wins: 79-76

The basketball gods owe Illinois a win against Bill Self and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Kansas
The Ghost of Christmas Past, Bill Self, talks to his raucous home crowd at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, after yet another Big 12 crown. What could have been...
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I know this isn’t how it ACTUALLY works. But, I do think this is how this works.

Illinois had to play Kansas one other time since Self moved to Lawrence, in 2009. It was the same game. Kansas, a No. 1 seed, and Illinois played in the 8/9 game, beating another former Illinois head man in Lon Kruger, coaching for UNLV this time.

The Illini lost 73-59.

This time will be different. It’s nearly impossible to win back-to-back National Championships at this point. Kansas has to lose to someone. It’s going to be Illinois.

Kansas does not have a traditional big man in 2023. They will switch everything on occasion. The lone obvious separator is Kansas has Gradey Dick and Illinois doesn’t have anything resembling a shooter of his caliber.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship - Kansas vs Texas
Dick for three.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Dick is shooting 39.9% from behind the arc and 85.1% at the line. He had a five-game stretch in Big 12 play where he was 23-of-38 (60.5%). Dick is Penn State’s Andrew Funk on steroids.

In one of the best matchups of the NCAA Tournament, TSJ will face off with Jalen Wilson, the unanimous Big 12 Player of the Year. Wilson averaged 20 and 8, while shooting a respectable 33.7% from three.

He can go an extended heater.

Illinois will win this game if it takes fewer than 20 threes and utilizes Hawkins inside and out to get KU center KJ Adams away from the hoop and let the big athletes from Illinois go to the bucket.

Illinois wins: 76-74.

See you in the Sweet 16.

This is Illinois basketball.