The first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament will feature the first-ever matchup between one team with national championship aspirations and another making its first appearance in 25 years.
The Illinois Fighting Illini have been a consistent Top 25 team all season, and they're currently the No. 2 team in the nation, which is their highest ranking all season. After losing back-to-back games in January, the Illini finished the season by winning 14 of their last 15 regular-season games. They played four of their final seven games without their best player in point guard Ayo Dosunmu (more on him later).
Illinois drew the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis and defeated Rutgers, Iowa, and Ohio State by a combined score of 263-227 to win their first tournament title since 2005. They ranked 15th in the country in scoring (81.4 ppg), seventh in field goal percentage (.499), and 19th in assists (16.3 apg). And now as the Midwest Region's No. 1 seed, this season's Illini team is drawing comparisons to the 2005, 2001, and 1989 teams, which were among the best in school history. This is Illinois' first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.
They'll be facing a determined Drexel Dragons team that has upset on their minds. They were limited to just 19 games this season because of the pandemic, but they finished the regular season by winning four of their last seven games. They drew the sixth seed in the CAA Conference Tournament, and they took down Charleston, Northeastern, and Elon en route to their first-ever CAA Tournament trophy. They come into the NCAA Tournament on a four-game winning streak.
The Dragons this season finished fourth in the CAA in scoring (71.5 ppg), led the conference in field goal percentage (.543), and were second in three-point shooting (.372). Drexel is making its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance as a Division I member, its first since 1996. The Illini look to fulfill their destiny, while Drexel looks to pick up one of its biggest wins in program history.
Midwest Region: No. 16 Drexel Dragons (12-7) vs. No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini (23-6)
Time: Friday, March 19 at 1:15 p.m. ET
Where: Indiana Farmers Coliseum (Indianapolis)
Spread: Illinois -22.5
Keys for Drexel
Guard Camren Wynter is the spark for the Dragons. He's the CAA's fourth-leading scorer (16.8 ppg), ranks second in assists (5.3 apg), and is third in the conference from long range (.425 on 3-pointers). But you also can expect to see plenty of forwards James Butler (12.9 ppg, second in CAA in field goal percentage at .580), T.J. Bickerstaff (team's second-leading rebounder at 5.4 rpg), Mate Okros (7.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg), and Tim Perry Jr. (61.9 percent from the field).
The Dragons have gone over the 75-point mark in four of their last eight games. A similar performance here will help them keep pace with Illinois
Keys for Illinois
How long the Fighting Illini stick around in the NCAA Tournament will come down to the performance of their trio of standouts. Ayo Dosunmu (20.7 ppg), center Kofi Cockburn (17.6 ppg), and guard Trent Frazier (10.4 ppg) are the main cogs to Illinois' offense. Dosunmu is the first player in school history to be named a first-team AP All-American. He's 18th nationally in scoring and was second in the Big Ten in assists (5.3 apg). He's also a pest on defense with 1.1 steals per game.
Cockburn, a second-team All-American, has posted 16 double-doubles this season. He's also the Big Ten's leading rebounder (9.6 rpg), posted the best shooting percentage from the field (.655), and was top 10 in blocks (1.24 bpg). Dosunmu and Cockburn are potential first-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft and figure to test Drexel on both ends of the court. Frazier complements the skill sets of the two stars while guards Andre Curbelo (9.1 ppg) and Adam Miller (8.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg), and forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (56.5 percent from the field) provide support. Illinois is not an easy team to match up against and that doesn't figure to be any different for the Dragons.
This will be the first meeting between these schools, but they are familiar with each other's conferences. Drexel is 0-8 all-time against the Big Ten, with the most recent loss being at home against Penn State back in 2015. Illinois is 4-0 against the Colonial Athletic Association. The Illini's last game against the conference was a 2007 meeting with Northeastern in Champaign.
Drexel is 1-4 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, while Illinois is 3-5 in its last eight Tournament games. The top-seeded Illini should have little difficulty moving on.
Prediction: Illinois 86, Drexel 64
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.