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It's national title or bust for the streaking Illini

It's national title or bust for the streaking Illini

Illinois is a proud program but is missing a national championship banner in its rafters. A great chance to fix that arrives this weekend.

Kevin Kaduk
Kevin Kaduk

Good morning, frents!

And welcome to three of the best sports weeks each year.

The NCAA tournament returns after a year absence on Thursday, Opening Day is just 17 days away and NFL free agency unofficially starts today with the opening of the negotiating window.

This is going to be awesome.

Three quick housecleaning notes before we get into it:

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OK, let's jump into things.

Sunday's results
Illinois 91, Ohio State 88 (OT)
Bulls 118, Raptors 95
Angels 1, Cubs 1
Sox 1, A's 0

Today's schedule
Hawks at Panthers (6, NBCSCH)
Cubs at Sox (3, MLB.com)

National title or bust

Big Ten team hasn't won a national title since 2000.

The University of Illinois has never won a national title.

Seems like a fine time to render both of those statements untrue.

I have no idea if this Illini team is the one that will finally break through and remove the school from the list of the best programs to never a title. There are too many things that can go wrong in a typical March run. Throw in a pandemic and it introduces possibilities you don't even want to consider.

But I do know that Illinois would be hard-pressed to enter the NCAA tournament with a better group.

Or on a better run.

Sunday's instant-classic overtime win over Ohio State gave the Illini their first Big Ten tournament title since the 2005 team. They've won seven straight games and 14 of its last 15. They're 6-0 in their last six games against top 10 opponents.

The run to close the regular season vaulted Illinois into the fourth No. 1 seed in program history and the first overall tournament appearance since 2013. The committee said Illinois was its third overall No. 1 seed β€” just in front of Michigan β€” though a few books have them with the fourth-best odds to win the title.

Some of that might be due to Illinois' draw, which won't be easy after Friday's matchup with No. 16-seed Drexel.

The committee got cute and set up a potential Illinois-Loyola matchup in the second round if the eighth-seeded Ramblers can top Georgia Tech in the first round.

I'm usually a fan of forced geographical matchups between, say, Kansas and Wichita State. But with only two teams from the state in this year's tournament, I'm not keen on losing at least one of them before the tournament's first weekend is over.

Survive Loyola (or Georgia Tech) and Illinois could get a Sweet 16 date with Oklahoma State and Cade Cunningham, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in this year's NBA draft.

But Illinois shouldn't be afraid of anyone in this tournament and they certainly haven't been playing like it for most of the past two months. After some early-season issues with defense and turnovers, Brad Underwood's team has been as good as anyone in the country.

Ayo Donsunmu is a star. So is Kofi Cockburn. Andre Curbelo, meanwhile, has entered the chat while Trent Frazier, Adam Miller and a few others are capable of producing the March moments necessary to winning six straight on the biggest stage.

There's even some fun numerology at play here if you're into that sort of thing. Dosnunmu, Cockburn and Curbelo all scored 16 points against Ohio State and that's amusing because it's been 16 years since the 2005 squad made its run to the final β€” 16 years after the 1989 Flyin' Illini team made the Final Four.

But neither of those teams won the ultimate prize with the '89 squad losing a back-and-forth heartbreaker to Michigan by two points and the '05 squad having its storybook ending ruined by North Carolina. (Raise your hand if you'd like to put Cockburn in a time machine to go battle Sean May.)

This 2021 team probably falls short from a talent standpoint when compared to its two predecessors, but that won't matter if they can pull this off.

And could it be set up any better for them? Illinois has as much talent as almost any other team in the tournament while bigger traditional powers are either sitting at home (Duke, Kentucky, Louisville) or scrounging around much lower in the bracket (Michigan State, North Carolina, UCLA).

They're also heading into the tournament with more momentum than anyone in the country, so much so that anything other than a national title will rank as a disappointment.

It's national title or bust for the Illini.

Trivia

Illinois has 40 NCAA tournament victories, the second-most of any program without a national championship. Name the Big 12 program just ahead of them with 41 victories and the Big Ten program just behind them with 39.

Bulls ride new starting lineup to win


Billy Donovan probably didn't need to make any moves for the Bulls to beat a flagging and undermanned Raptors squad on Sunday night. But it also probably didn't hurt. Donovan yanked Coby White and Wendell Carter from the starting lineup and replaced them with Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young. The result was nine Bulls scoring in double digits in the 118-95 walk, including all four involved in the lineup swap.

  • Patrick Williams scored a career-high 23 points to lead the Bulls and, man, was it a good night to remember he's still just 19 years old.

Bears sign Mario Edwards to three-year deal


The Russell Wilson trade rumors continue to swirl, but the only tangible Bears news continues to be the mundane kind. First the team set Cairo Santos and Pat O'Donnell up with extensions and then cleared cap space by restructuring the contracts of Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair. On Sunday, they agreed to a three-year deal worth a reported $11.5 million with Mario Edwards Jr. Β The 27-year-old defensive lineman had four entertaining sacks last season, but was also charged with misdemeanor assault during the Carolina road trip (he denied any wrongdoing) and is suspended for the first two games of the 2021 season for a PED violation.

Cubs and Sox meet in spring training today


The Cubs and Sox combined for just two runs on Sunday, yet somehow walked away with a win or a tie. Go figure.

They'll face each other for the first time in spring training today. Alec Mills gets the start for the Cubs while Dylan Cease will make his first appearance of the Cactus League for the Sox.

  1. Illini superfan Will Leitch on the return of March Madness bringing normalcy back into our lives. Substack
  2. Pat Finley's free-agency primer for the Bears. Sun-Times
  3. Yasmani Grandal made his spring debut on Saturday, but still has some work to do to be ready for Opening Day. NBC Sports Chicago
  4. Watching two Japanese players discuss their love of Mark Buehrle was an unexpected highlight of my weekend. Twitter
  5. Just your everyday story of a Chicago food truck owner getting clipped for selling guns with his grub. ABC7

Trivia answer: Oklahoma and Purdue

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