Photo courtesy of Illinois athletics

Illinois just finished up its most successful season since 2005 by winning the Big Ten Tournament.

The last time the Fighting Illini won the Big Ten Tournament was also in 2005. The 2004-05 squad was special. There’s nothing that shows that this 2020-21 team can’t be just as special.

The Illini finished the season with a record of 23-6. This is the most wins in a single season since 2012-13, where they played seven more games than this pandemic-shortened campaign. Illinois has won 12 of its last 13 games coming.

The only loss was against a streaking Michigan State team. The Illini finished with a record of 16-4 in conference. The 16 wins ties for the most by Illinois in Big Ten play ever.

After being named first-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten last week, Ayo Dosumnu kept racking up awards. He was named to the Big Ten All-Tournament team, on top of being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. An even greater honor came on Wednesday when Dosunmu was named the USA Today Player of the Year.

The job that head coach Brad Underwood has done with this program shouldn’t be overlooked either. After his first two years at Illinois, his teams had a combined 26 wins.

During his first year as head coach, the team finished with a record of 14-18. In second year at the helm, the Illini finished with their lowest win total (12) since the 1974-75 season (8). The turnaround he has done is one of the most impressive in the country.

First Tournament Appearance Since…

2013.

Illinois basketball hasn’t made the tournament in eight seasons. That obviously will change this year as the Illini earned a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

The last coach to take the Illini to the tournament was John Groce. That was his first year as head coach at Illinois. It also so happens that would be the only year under Groce that the Illini would make the big dance.

Illinois beat Colorado in the opening round of the 2013 tournament. It won a low-scoring game over the Buffaloes, 57-49. In the next round, the Illini lost a close one to Miami, 63-59.

Many people remember the game against Miami for one specific reason.

The Illini lost to the Hurricanes in a very close game due to a questionable call. The officials awarded the ball to Miami, after the ball clearly went off of a Miami player.

It was something that one could clearly see on replay. This ultimately led to the NCAA changing the rule of replay. Because of this, referees can review calls with under two minutes left in regulation.

Let’s hope that nothing like that happens again this time around for Illinois.

Preview

Illinois will take on the No. 16 seed Drexel Dragons. Drexel won the CAA Championship over Elon, 63-56. The Dragons finished sixth in the CAA during the regular season, finishing with an overall record of 12-7.

The leading scorer for the Dragons is guard Camren Wynter, scoring nearly 17 points per game. They also have a very good big man.

James Butler just missed out on averaging a double-double this year. He averages 12.9 points along with 9.2 rebounds per contest. However, Butler hasn’t faced anyone remotely close to Kofi Cockburn this year.

Realistically, this shouldn’t be a close game. The Illini are playing their best basketball of the year. Drexel doesn’t match up with Illinois all that great. Illinois opened up as 22.5-point favorites over the Dragons.

The Dragons won’t have an answer for Cockburn down low. He dominated in the Big Ten all year long. Nothing against the CAA, but its big men won’t be able to match up against Cockburn at all.

As for Dosumnu, it doesn’t really matter who the Illini play. He’s been putting up unreal numbers all year long. Even when it seems like he has a bad game, he still ends up with a decent stat line. He’s been nothing short of special.

Drexel did hold its own earlier this year against Pittsburgh, in a 83-74 loss. The Dragons can do it, but nothing really jumps out that they’ll be able to do it against the Illini.

Illinois is a much different team than Pittsburgh. The Illini can dominate inside, and from just about every position.

It won’t be a surprise if the Illini get off to a slow start. That’s something that has plagued the offense all year.

Luckily, it hasn’t shown to be too big of a problem. It won’t end up being a problem on Friday afternoon either.

The Illini should run away with this one. This game can be seen at 12:15 p.m. CT on TBS.

Prediction: Illinois 88, Drexel 53