The degree of difficulty is about to jump significantly for the Illini. On Sunday, they’ll face eighth-seeded Loyola.
No drama. No upsets. No regrets.
That’s all any coach of a No. 1 seed can hope for in an NCAA Tournament opener, and that’s what Brad Underwood got from Illinois’ 78-49 romp over outmanned Drexel on Friday afternoon in Indianapolis.
“A great matter-of-fact game,” Underwood said. “I’m loving the balance we’re playing with right now.”
Oh, there were a few early jitters, even in this controlled environment, as the newly minted Big Ten Tournament champions ended the program’s eight-year absence from this stage. The Illini missed five of their first six shots from the field and had just two points through the first four minutes.
Yet, they were able to stabilize quickly and avoid the sort of agony second-seeded Ohio State experienced Friday across town in a stunning overtime loss to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts.
“Every kid dreams about playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Underwood said. “They’ve done that since they were 5 years old. When they stepped out there, there was a little anxiety, a little nervousness.”
Then Trent Frazier hit a couple of jumpers, Kofi Cockburn threw down a couple of dunks and the 22½-point favorites settled in. They took the lead for good 6½ minutes in and limited the Dragons to 22% shooting from the field in building an 18-point halftime lead.
From there, it was cruise control until Underwood finally removed his starters for the final 97 seconds.
“It was amazing,” All-America guard Ayo Dosunmu said on CBS after finishing with 17 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. “I had goosebumps going out there. I know [after] last year, not having an NCAA Tournament, it was unreal for me just to get out here and play.”
Playing at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, a minor-league hockey arena about 6.2 miles north of Lucas Oil Stadium — site of last weekend’s Big Ten proceedings and the -Final Four a fortnight from now — the Illini followed the calm example of their on-court leader.
Focusing on distribution and defense, Dosunmu remained scoreless until the final six minutes of the first half as the Dragons hung around. That’s when he dropped in eight quick points to key a 20-8 burst.
“I just let the game come to me,” the Morgan Park High School product said. “That’s the way I was taught the game of basketball, and that’s how I always love to play the game of basketball.”
And the slow start on offense?
“We were getting good looks early, and we didn’t play for a week,” he said. “That had a lot to do with it, too. Once I settled in, we were all good.”
The Illini weren’t just good. They were highly entertaining, lobbing and dunking their way to a convincing win, their 15th in 16 tries since the middle of January.
The slickest move of all might have been Andre Curbello’s “nutmeg” pass through the legs of unsuspecting freshman forward Amari Williams. A cutting Cockburn took the feed and finished with authority for two more of his game-high 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting.
It was a nifty extension of the pregame juggling routine those two like to perform with a soccer ball and three small yellow balls.
The degree of difficulty is about to jump significantly for the Illini. On Sunday, they’ll face eighth-seeded Loyola, 71-60 winners over Georgia Tech, for a trip to the Sweet 16.
Venue and time were still to be announced as of Friday afternoon.
“No idea when we’ll find out,” Underwood said matter-of-factly. “That doesn’t matter. We’ll go play at the park, as long as we’re playing for something.”