Illinois is red hot entering the NCAA Tournament and could make the most noise out of any of the Big Ten programs.
The Big Ten is going to rock the Big Dance.
Following a superb regular season and tournament for the aforementioned conference, the NCAA Tournament (which commences with its First Four games this Thursday) will include a whopping nine Big Ten programs.
The tournament encompasses a pair of one-seeds in Michigan and Illinois, a pair of two-seeds in Iowa and Ohio State, a four-seed in Purdue, a nine-seed in Wisconsin, a pair of 10-seeds in Rutgers and Maryland, and an 11-seed in Michigan State.
But as it is with every conference that includes multiple March Madness teams, only one program in the Big Ten can make it further than the rest. And while I prefer the underdogs, a number of signs are pointing towards Illinois surpassing the remainder of its Big Ten foes and possibly entering the Final Four and winning the NCAA Basketball National Championship.
The momentum is real
After starting off 9-5, the Fighting Illini have won 14 of their last 15 matchups and are currently 23-6 with a 16-4 record within the conference. This impressive run helped Illinois recently win the Big Ten Tournament with a pair of double-digit wins in the quarter and semifinals (defeated Rutgers by 22 and Iowa by 11) along with a three-point victory over Ohio State in the conference championship.
But this isn’t just any old run for Illinois’ men’s basketball program — this is one of the most important runs in quite some time, one that’s won the Illini their conference tournament for the first time in 16 years and given them a berth to the Big Dance for the first time in eight.
This sheer momentum should continue until Illinois finds itself deep in the tournament and potentially winning the national title.
Despite Michigan finishing with a better winning percentage both overall and in conference play, there’s no hotter team in the Big Ten at this moment in time than Illinois.
In-region Big Ten competition
Illinois is the top seed in the Midwest region, and the only other Big Ten program within that region happens to be the No. 10-seed Rutgers Scarlet Knights. However, for Illinois to even face RU, they’d need to meet in the Elite 8 round, a part of the tournament Rutgers probably won’t even reach.
Despite the fact they underwent a decent season, Rutgers would possibly need to surpass both No. 2 Houston and No. 3 West Virginia in order to make it that far, so since that’s unlikely, it’s pretty much a given Illinois may be the furthest Big Ten team in its own group (barring any crazy upset).
For what it’s worth, to make it to the Elite 8, Illinois will need to face No. 16 Drexel in the round of 64, then either No. 8 Loyola Chicago or No. 9 Georgia Tech in the round of 32, followed by either No. 5 Tennessee, No. 12 Oregon State, No. 4 Oklahoma State, or No. 13 Liberty in the Sweet 16 — what would arguably be an easier path than Rutgers’.
Thus, at least we know that if there’s going to be a Big Ten team winning the Midwest region, it’s likely Illinois. And if Illinois ends up somehow facing Rutgers in the Elite 8, just remember: the Illini most recently defeated the Scarlet Knights by 22 in the conference tournament, so they’d definitely be prepared.
What about the Final Four?
There’s indeed a chance the entire Final Four could be all Big Ten teams — maybe No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Illinois and then No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Iowa? Of course, Ohio State and Iowa would need to outlast No. 1 Baylor and No. 1 Gonzaga, respectively.
Anything’s possible, and if that does happen to be the case, it’ll obviously be a tough challenge for Illinois. Nonetheless, the Illini could still pull it off.
Despite losing to the Buckeyes earlier in the year, Illinois has seemingly figured them out, having defeated them in its final regular-season matchup and then again in the Big 12 title game.
Illinois has been the better scoring team throughout the season (81.4 points per game in comparison to Ohio State’s 77.3 average points) and also the better rebounding team (40.4 rebounds per game in comparison to OSU’s 36.2 average boards). Illinois is additionally allowing 69.2 points per game while the Buckeyes are allowing 71.0, showing a superior strength on the defensive end (albeit not a massive difference).
Illinois has proven to likely be the better team, and on a significant stage, would continue to push that narrative.
And then when it comes to either Iowa or Michigan, the former has yet to prove it can match up with Illinois for all 40 minutes (the Illini are 2-0 against the Hawkeyes this season) while the latter lost to Illinois by a whopping 23 points earlier this month.
I’d be careful with Michigan right now as well — the Wolverines have lost three of their last five, including losses to Illinois (like we just mentioned), Michigan State (who’s a No. 11-seed and playing in a First Four game), and Ohio State.
The betting odds
At DraftKings Sportsbook, Illinois currently possesses the highest odds out of any Big Ten team to win the title at +700 (Michigan is +800 ahead of the tournament and Iowa is +1700).
The Illini are additionally favored to win the Midwest region and reach the Final Four at +150.