Even with ACC player of the year Moses Wright out, the Yellow Jackets have dangerous defenders and shot creators in Jose Alvarado, Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher.
How does Illinois coach Brad Underwood size up 16th-seeded Drexel, the top-seeded Illini’s opening NCAA Tournament opponent?
“They know exactly what they’re trying to get every possession down the court on the offensive side,” Underwood said. “They execute extremely well. I’ve been very impressed by how hard they play. Even though they start a freshman and a sophomore, they have a vast amount of knowledge; their go-to guys are upperclassmen. They rebound the ball great. And they’ve got all the makings of a team that deserves to be there.”
Translation: Somebody bring me those Loyola and Georgia Tech scouting reports.
If the Illini (23-6) lose to the champs of the Colonial Athletic tournament, it’ll be merely the second-biggest upset in the history of the Big Dance. Nothing the Dragons (12-7) pull off Friday could top UMBC’s takedown of Virginia in 2018 — the lone victory in 140 tries for 16s against 1s. There’s only one first time.
Far bigger drama comes with eighth-seeded Loyola (24-4) against ninth-seeded Georgia Tech (17-8). It doesn’t take a fan with a maroon-and-gold scarf to question why the selection committee didn’t bump up the Ramblers a seed line or two given how highly they were ranked by those with poll votes or fancy advanced metrics attached to their names.
It’s one thing to try to survive the Yellow Jackets, winners of eight in a row and champs of the ACC tournament. But to have Illinois lined up next in the Midwest region? Pretty rough.
On the other hand, some of us are old enough to remember when winning even one NCAA Tournament game would’ve been a really big deal up in Rogers Park. And the Ramblers’ chances at an opening “W” got a lot better when the Yellow Jackets’ best player, Moses Wright — the ACC player of the year — tested positive for COVID-19 during intake screening in Indianapolis.
Wright, the team’s top scorer and rebounder and the only true big man in its regular rotation, is in isolation and, according to coach Josh Pastner, asymptomatic.
“A gut punch,” Pastner said of losing his best player, who won’t be available against the Illini if the team gets past Loyola. “It stinks.”
Without much depth at his disposal under the best of circumstances, Pastner likely will have to give 6-10 Rodney Howard — who has played double-digit minutes only five times all season — extended duty against Ramblers star center Cameron Krutwig.
Krutwig, a deft, crafty, dancing-bear lefty against Wright, a monster dunker who can knock down the three, would’ve been a riveting watch for basketball lovers. Nationally, Wright against Illinois center Kofi Cockburn would’ve been among the biggest storylines of Round 2.
Then again, Cockburn, a second-team All-American, vs. Krutwig, a third-teamer, would be mighty special. It’s fun to look ahead like that, isn’t it? To take things two games at a time, if you will.
Needless to say, the Ramblers can’t operate in such a manner. Not at tournament time. Not against a foe from the big, bad ACC. Not against anyone.
As good as Wright is, the best thing about the Yellow Jackets during their hot streak is how their perimeter play came alive. Long slashers Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher and slick point guard Jose Alvarado aren’t big three-point shooters, but each can create off the dribble and turn a game with disruptive defense. Krutwig will make a huge imprint on this game, but it’ll be Braden Norris, Lucas Williamson and the rest of the Ramblers guards who need to keep up.
Loyola, though, enters the game as a strong favorite. Even after the Final Four run of 2018, this fact alone is pretty wild when you step back and think about it.