The top-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini got their NCAA Tournament off to a good start on Friday, as they blew out Drexel and advanced into the second round of March Madness.
Things got off to a bit of a slow start for the Illini, but they ended with a flourish, as four of the team’s starters scored in double figures in a well-balanced, fast-paced victory over the Dragons.
Here are five quick thoughts on the Illini’s tournament opening victory.
Ayo Dosunmu Takes Center Stage in the Second Half
After a rough start to the game, Dosunmu came alive in the second half of the contest, finishing up the game with 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and three steals in his first ever NCAA Tournament game.
Dosunmu came into the game with the spotlight on him after being named an AP First-Team All-American and winning the USA Today’s College Player of the Year award this week, and he made quick work of proving worthy of the accolades, as he did a little bit of everything to help his team win the game.
Illinois’ strength, ultimately, is in their depth, but having a healthy and effective Dosunmu is a pretty nice option too.
Kofi Cockburn Prevents a Second-Half Letdown
After Illinois raced out to a 39-21 lead at halftime, they could have let Drexel hang around, especially with how well the Dragons can shoot three-pointers.
Cockburn had other ideas however, scoring 10 quick points in the second half and demoralizing the Dragons with a series of thunderous dunks around the rim, putting an emphatic stamp on the game.
Cockburn also showed great restraint after picking up a foul in the first minute of the game, avoiding the referees’ ire for the remaining 39 minutes of the contest. That will be a huge boost to the Illini if he can stay out of foul trouble moving forward, allowing the squad to effectively use him and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
Illinois’ Defense Nearly Steals the Show in the First Half
While Illinois’ offensive exploits are going to get plenty of attention after their opening victory, their defense really did set the stage, especially in the first half of the game.
Drexel had a ton of trouble getting the ball into the middle of the floor thanks to the effective defense of Bezhanishvili and Cockburn, but their perimeter game was just as sluggish, with Dosunmu and Trent Frazier doing great work on the edges as well.
The Dragons shot just 21.7% from the floor in the first half, and although they did ultimately improve that number a bit, they still finished 19-of-62 from the field, a testament to how well the Big Ten season prepared the Illini for the bright lights of March.
Andre Curbelo Once Again Shows His Worth
The Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year has gotten plenty of attention from national pundits in his freshman season, and Andre Curbelo was a threat all over the court once again in this game, with eight points and five assists to his credit.
Illinois’ starters really did a great job of establishing the tempo and contributing their scoring to the mix on Friday, but Curbelo is going to be a key ingredient if the Illini want to beat teams like Loyola and Oklahoma State moving forward. His speed and ability to find players in transition are going to be tremendous weapons in that quest, and he displayed both with confidence on Friday.
A Couple of Historical Nuggets From IlliniStats
Illinois’ 36 field goals against Drexel are the most they’ve had in an NCAA Tournament game since 1989, when they racked up 37 against the Syracuse Orange on March 26. The all-time record for field goals made in a game was 39 against Louisville in that same NCAA Tournament, according to IlliniStats:
The Illini also only committed five turnovers, their second-best performance in that regard in team history. They only had four turnovers in NCAA games against Cincinnati (2004) and Fairfield (1986), according to IlliniStats.