Saturday, April 13, 2024
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UConn on record-setting NCAA Tournament pace for second straight year with dangerous Illinois up next

BOSTON — They played two Sweet 16 games at TD Garden on Thursday night. The first one was expected to be a blowout; it was. No. 1 overall seed Connecticut destroyed No. 4 San Diego State to the blaring tune of 82-52. The nightcap in the East Regional was supposed to be a close game; it was. No. 2 Iowa State vs. No. 3 Illinois gave us a 72-69 ending in favor of the Illini. 

Illinois managed to worm out a win in rainy Beantown despite brutal foul shooting (15 of 29) and overcame foul trouble from its best player (Terrence Shannon Jr.), who sat for 5 minutes and 39 seconds in the second half, giving the Cyclones hope.

And now it’s Illinois that will need to stock up on hope and a lot more. Because the beast of this bracket awaits on Saturday — and more than 10,000 Huskies fans will pile into TD Garden to try and turn this place into “Storrs North” for one more night. 

UConn is in the Elite Eight for a second straight season.

Illinois will play for the Final Four for the first time in 19 years. 

Can the Illini push back not just on the top team in the sport, but their own history? Illinois is 1-8 all time vs. top-two seeds in the NCAAs, the lone win coming in 1989 in the Midwest Regional final vs. Syracuse

In the wake of Connecticut vaporizing another team and continuing a record-setting NCAA Tournament strut, the question I’m here to ask isn’t whether or not Illinois can upset the Huskies. It’s whether we can get a competitive game. Give us a single-digit spread when the clock hits triple zeroes sometime around 8:15 p.m. on Saturday night. I think Illinois is good enough to merely give UConn a sweat. I’ll need to see to believe it, though. The Illini have the scoring, the size, the shooting, the style — maybe just maybe — to originate a bit of drama. 

“Well, they’ve been beat before,” a soaked Brad Underwood told me on the walk back to the locker room. 

The Illinois coach was basking in the program’s first Sweet 16 win since 2005. 

“We’ve got to limit them to one shot. We got to be able to get out in transition. Get easy baskets. We have to make free throws,” he said. 

They have to play nearly perfect. 

“We’ll see how they guard Booty Ball,” Underwood added of his team’s pound-it-inside, swing-swing-swing-it-around offensive style. “We’re going to space them. I think that’s a little bit different than what maybe they normally see. But it takes a Herculean effort.” 

UConn has been flatly disgusted at the notion of even entertaining semi-competitive games in this tournament over its last nine matchups. This program has peeled off nine straight March Madness victories, all by double digits, all by 13 points or more. It’s the only school to do that in the history of the sport; 1981-82 Indiana and 1954-55 La Salle were the previous record-holders at six straight.

“We suck at winning close games, so you have to go with the alternative,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley half-joked Thursday. 

UConn even getting to the Elite Eight is rarified air. What do I mean? This team is the first reigning champion to reach a regional final since Florida in 2007. The Gators, of course, are the most recent back-to-back national champions.

UConn looks like it’s going to match that feat as well. If it doesn’t, we’ll have a strike of shock that this Dance will be remembered for. Either way, UConn’s final result will define much of this tournament.

“This team has defied what past champions have done and taken this program to a completely different level,” Hurley said. 

That’s right, Dan. Your team’s 30-point drubbing of the Aztecs in a national title game rematch was SDSU’s largest tournament loss in program history and the sixth-largest Sweet 16 margin of victory in tournament history. 

“We just have people that just are desperate to win more,” Hurley said. “We have winners.”

And killers. UConn has trailed for a total of 5 minutes and 50 seconds out of 280 played since the start of the 2023 Sweet 16. It’s +86 in point advantage through three games in this tournament, which is the second-most ever by a reigning champ to 1955 La Salle (which I’m now finding out is evidently one of the best teams lost to the ages).

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, consider that future lottery pick Stephon Castle may be morphing into a Real Deal. He had 16 points and 11 rebounds against SDSU, marking his first double-double in college. He picked a nice night to do it; Huskies big Donovan Clingan had an off night (eight points, eight rebounds). It’s unlikely he’ll be similarly ineffective on Saturday. Cam Spencer had 18 points, Tristen Newton had 17 points and the Huskies waltzed to 1.30 points per possession while looking … casual? 

It’s gotten so out of hand, UConn assistant Tom Moore told me that he’s had to remind some younger people in the program just how not normal this kind of dominance is. 

If you’re Illinois, how do you prepare for a monster?

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily intimidating, but I think we have — personally, I have more of a respect for them,” Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins said. “I think it’s a higher level of respect.”

Illinois guard Marcus Domask isn’t giving an inch. 

“I’ve played a lot of teams that are supposed to beat us, if you say they’re supposed to beat us,” said Domask, “we’ll figure out how to guard them and how to score on us, but they have to do the same for well. It’s just another game for us really.”

That might be a misstep. UConn is not just another game. It’s the Elite Eight. It’s for program history. It seems impossible to just-another-game UConn and win. 

On its side, Illinois has some record-setting stuff of its own. Shannon Jr. has amassed 85 points in this tournament, which is the most through three games in the NCAAs in school history. He’s also done it shooting 59.2% from the field and 37.5% from 3-point range. Illinois has no chance without him. He’ll need to be the best player on the court Saturday to give his team a chance.

There’s one thing I can promise you: offense. Lots and lots of offense. UConn rates No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom,com and Illinois ranks No. 2. This game could well be a classic if both teams play to their strengths. I bring good news from the Illinois side. Underwood plans to turn it into a track meet.

“We want to try to score 100,” he said. “We want to run and get turned in the open court. … We get easy baskets that way. We’re not afraid to run with anybody.”

If Illinois might as well go down its way. I’d love nothing more than to get an epic in Boston on Saturday night. But after I watched Illinois hold on vs. an Iowa State team that shot 40% overall and missed more than half of its shots inside five feet, I still can’t get there. I want to get there. Connecticut isn’t just different, it’s crept in on legendary status. 

As this tournament has whittled from 68 to 64 to 48 to 32 to 24 to 16 and, to now, 12 teams, an inescapable thought lingers.

There might be a team that can beat UConn. But I have no idea who is beating UConn in this tournament. 

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