Can Illini win a national title?
The NCAA Tournament is right around the corner and it looks like a year where the field is wide open.
Last year’s national runner-up Gonzaga is the current betting favorite to win the national championship at BetMGM with +375 odds. Beyond Gonzaga, Arizona and Kentucky are next at +600 and +800, respectively.
After that, things get bumpy with 15 teams listed between +1000 and +5000 on the odds board. Included in this mix is Illinois at +2200 to win the national championship.
Last year, Illinois finished second in the Big Ten in the regular season and then won the conference tournament. Red hot entering March Madness, the Fighting Illini were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest but ended up being upset by Loyola-Chicago in the second round.
Illinois is determined not to let that happen this time around.
Going into Sunday’s regular season finale at home against Iowa, Illinois is 21-8 overall with a 14-5 mark in Big Ten play. The Illini have won three of their last four games and have the talent to make a deep run into the month of March. The fact that Illinois is +2200 to win it all and Wisconsin, the Big Ten regular season champion, is listed at +5000 speaks volumes about the talent of Brad Underwood’s team.
What makes the Illini so good? And what could harm them during the tournament? Here’s a closer look if you’re considering a National Championship futures bet.
What makes Illinois a national championship contender?
Illinois has a dominant big man in Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot, 285-pound junior is averaging 21.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. If he receives constant hits near the edge, he is virtually impossible to monitor with his size and strength. There’s no better example of that than his 37-point, 12-rebound effort in a win over Wisconsin in early February. That’s what he’s capable of.
And when teams throw multiple bodies at Cockburn, the Illini have an array of capable 3-point shooters. Alfonso Plummer is leading this charge. Plummer, a transfer from Utah, is averaging 15.5 points per game and shooting 42.3 percent from range. He plays in the backcourt alongside fifth-year senior Trent Frazier, who never hesitates to shoot from outside the arc. Frazier, one of the Big Ten’s top defensemen, had 307 threes in his college career.
Jacob Grandison is also a consistent outside shooter at 40.8%. You can’t ignore André Curbelo’s exit from the bench either. Curbelo has missed a lot of time this year, but he was an X factor for the Illini last season. He’s struggled to get into a rhythm this year, but if he gets his rhythm and creates the dribble, it makes Illinois even more dangerous.
What could hurt Illinois in the tournament?
Illinois wants to play fast, and that can lead to turnovers. The Illini are averaging 12.5 turnovers per game, the third worst in the Big Ten. And when Illinois doesn’t dictate the pace and is dragged into a half-court game, it tends to struggle.
The loss to Loyola-Chicago in last year’s NCAA Tournament was a clear example. The Ramblers slowed things down and forced Illinois to play with a ton of discipline on defense. They couldn’t do it. And that Illinois team had Ayo Dosunmu, who is currently having a great rookie season for the Chicago Bulls.
Illinois struggled with that kind of game Thursday night against Penn State, a team that lacks athleticism and top-tier talent but keeps games close by slowing the pace and shuffling its defenses.
Illinois ended up winning 60-55, but PSU led at halftime and found success while displaying Illinois’ smaller guards on offense. Cockburn was also limited to just 11 points on seven shots while Frazier, Plummer, Grandison and key bench player Coleman Hawkins were a combined 5 of 17 from deep.
This is the type of matchup Illinois will want to avoid in tournament play.