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The Big Ten Ran Through Champaign: Illini Surging But Not Done Yet

Illinois basketball capped an impressive season to date with a Big Ten Tournament championship, but the focus now shifts to the big dance.
Illinois Basketball NCAA Tournament

Photo: IlliniMBB/Twitter

Mission accomplished, but there is still work to be done.

5,846 days after Illinois' last Big Ten Tournament championship victory, the Illini completed the task that's been a year in the making since last season's tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Illinois' overtime 91-88 win over Ohio State will be long talked about among Illini fans for years to come. It was an instant classic that saw the Illini get out to a 17-point lead in the first half that was cut to five at halftime, neck-and-neck action in the second half, and eventually a three-point win in overtime.

We talked about the win and Illinois' chances in the NCAA Tournament on Monday's installment of The Sky Is Falling Podcast.

We elaborated on the journey Illinois has been on essentially since the day last season's conference tournament was cancelled.

What the Win Means

As stated after the blowout win over Michigan, Illinois' program is in line to enjoy sustained success for years to come. Winning their conference tournament was another credit to what Brad Underwood's created since taking over the helm in Champaign.

If we are going to be technical, Illinois had two bad losses this season: Maryland and Michigan State. Both got their ticket to the big dance, so, calling them bad losses now is a thing of the past.

Illinois now seemingly looks primed for a deep tournament run after not only securing an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament and landing the top seed in the Midwest Region with the Drexel Dragons as the first opponent in their pathway coming this Friday.

Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are the two Knights leading the Illini into the Indianapolis bubble to slay not only the Dragons from Drexel but anyone else in their way. Both have played a crucial role in Illinois' success that resulted in a top seed.

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Dosunmu was named the Big Ten Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He and Cockburn were both named to the All-Tournament team.

However, what makes Illinois a Final Four favorite is their depth. It showed through against Ohio State, exemplified by the performances of senior leaders Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili also had a memorable afternoon posting 12 points, all in the second half, which loomed large with Cockburn in foul trouble down the stretch.

The championship cements Illinois' best season since 2005 when they eventually advanced to the National Championship game in St. Louis.

Looking Ahead

With Illinois highly favored against the Dragons, many fans are looking ahead at the possible matchup in the second round against either Loyola-Chicago or Georgia Tech.

The Ramblers and their most notable fan remembered from their Final Four run in 2018, Sister Jean, enter the Field of 68 as an eight-seed. Many around the college basketball landscape believe they're a better team than the former Cinderella story, however.

Loyola is coming off a 24-4 season and winning the Missouri Valley Tournament championship.

Moving ahead, the Illini could potentially play Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16, meaning America could get a battle between two potential lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham and Dosunmu.

First Things First

Illinois enters Friday afternoon's first-round matchup against Drexel as 22.5 point favorites. They will tip-off at 12:15 PM CDT.

Drexel won the Colonial Athletic Conference Tournament as a six-seed, defeating Elon in the tournament final.

I have already submitted my first bracket and I'm very confident in it.