The Fighting Illini are back. After years of mediocrity, Illinois basketball has earned one seed in the NCAA tournament. The last time the team was relevant was in the mid-2000s when Bill Self was the coach and guards Deron Williams and Luther Head were spearheading the Fighting Illini’s backcourt. The case for Illinois is becoming stronger by the day.
This year’s team has all the tools to make a run at the National Championship. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are arguably the best one-two combo in the nation. Senior guard Da’Monte Williams was shooting 56% from three and was red hot in the Big Ten Tournament.
Freshman guards Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller have given the team a spark on both ends, and big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili gives the team an anchor on the defensive end. The case for Illinois to make a run at the national title is compelling for the Fighting Illini.
The Fighting Illini have a potent offense that gives teams trouble. They currently have the 15th best offense in the country and are averaging 81.4 ppg. That is an impressive stat considering they are playing in a conference that sent nine teams to the tournament this year.
The team’s ball movement is excellent. They are a top 20 team in assists per game, and they have multiple guards that can give teams trouble out of the pick and roll. Donsunmu and Curbelo are excellent ball handlers who don’t mind giving it up when needed.
Size on the offensive end also gives Illinois an advantage. Cockburn is a legit seven-footer who can post up on the block and catch lobs in the pick and roll. Bezhanishvili gives them a nice option off the bench as a roller, and he can occasionally hit the open three if left open at the end of the shot clock.
Coleman Hawkins and Jermaine Hamlin probably won’t get as much time when the tournament comes around, but they are nice options to have if Cockburn and Bezhanishvili get in foul trouble.
The team likes to play inside and out. When teams pack the paint because of their size and driving capabilities, Williams, Miller, and Donsunmu can hit the open three. When they go small, the team can run a five out motion that opens up opportunities for drives and cuts to the basket.
Size plays a big factor in the team’s success on the defensive end as well. The team is 9th in total rebounds per game and 7th in defensive rebounds. This is the team’s biggest strength. They rarely give up second-chance points, which let them get set up in their halfcourt offense.
They don’t wow anyone with steals or blocks, but they are a solid defensive team. They play straight up and could switch up going zone and man pretty comfortably.
Even when they have beaten off the dribble or a cut, they have shot-blockers who are not afraid to step up and contest or take charges. This provides the ultimate safety blanket for guards who can now step up and pressure the basketball without fear of giving up an easy drive to the basket.
Why the case for Illinois is strong
The resurgence of the Fighting Illini is unprecedented. Just three years ago, this team went 12-21 and 7-13 in conference play. Now, they are poised to make a deep run at a national championship.
Coach Brad Underwood has done a tremendous job molding this team’s identity. They are a hard-nosed defensive team that can score with anyone in the country.
Though the team has six losses, all of them came against teams currently in the tournament. This team’s one weak spot can come when they have a lack of scoring aside from Dosunmu.
In five of their six losses, Dosunmu was the leading scorer and usually couldn’t find any other offensive help on the floor. The team also has difficulties when Cockburn has foul trouble and goes to the bench, and they have to play other big men for long periods of time.
Ultimately, this team’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. They are experienced and talented with a proven coach, a rare combination in college basketball today. This team has all the tools to make a run at a national title and the case for Illinois is strong as any team in the tournament.
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