March Madness: Does Illinois need something up its sleeve to upset UConn in the Elite Eight?

For Illinois head coach Brad Underwood, it's been something new seemingly every round.

After taking down Iowa State, he burst into the Illini locker room shirtless while blasting his players with a water gun in a moment of pure bliss.

Enjoyable for the Illinois faithful, who just watched U of I down the No. 2 seeded Cyclones, but Underwood could only chuckle after.

"They've got a 60-year-old man taking his shirt off and doing his best dad bod," Underwood said. "So probably not very good, not very easy to look at."

Underwood's prize for felling Iowa State? The top-seeded and reigning champion UConn Huskies, who are currently dismantling teams.

UConn's average margin of victory through three tournament games is 27 points per game in wins over San Diego State, Northwestern and Stetson. Putting this in perspective, the Huskies’ average margin of 20 points per game in last year's tournament ranks third all-time.

This begs the question: Does Illinois need something new up its sleeve? Or, does Illinois just need to do what it's done to other teams, but on a higher level?

Underwood alluded to the latter on Friday when taking on the challenge of Dan Hurley's UConn team.

"They are who they are, we are who we are," Underwood said. "It's a quick turn. Danny and those guys, his staff do an incredible job offensively. They run a lot of sets, nothing that we haven't seen throughout the course of Big Ten play and postseason."

Illinois, in wins over Iowa State, Morehead State and Duquense, were able to speed up its opponents and challenge them all defensively. ISU, one of the best defensive teams in the country, moved into a zone defense twice against the Illini.

However, the main challenge comes down to the defensive side of the ball for Illinois.

UConn, much like Illinois, is one of the best offensive teams in the nation. It's the complete opposite of the spectrum Saturday evening than what Illinois faced against Iowa State.

"We'll be active in terms of covering some of those things," Underwood said. "It ultimately comes down to good players making plays in a game like this and then handling all the intangible things."

That's easier said than done, though.

UConn averages 81.6 points per game and allows an average of 63.6 points per game.

Four Huskies – Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer, Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban and Stephon Castle – all average double figures in points per game.

With such a Goliath standing before Illinois. how much pressure lies on the team's shoulders? Not too much, the team says.

"I feel like there's, like, no pressure on us," Illini foward Coleman Hawkins said. "I feel like it's another game. We're going to prepare the same way. We're going to practice the same way. We're going to go about film the same way."

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 28: Illinois huddles up during an NCAA Sweet Sixteen game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Illinois Fighting Illini on March 28, 2024, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Gett

The biggest match up

Offensively, the Illini and Huskies are similar. They both know what works and stick to it. They have the experience where they won't falter. That materializes in shot making.

As a team, UConn shoots 31 percent from 3-point range. Illinois allows its opposition to shoot 34.5 from 3-point range. However, the biggest match up comes in the post.

Donovan Clingan averages 12.6 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game. He's one of the best big men in college basketball, standing at 7-foot-2.

Clingan is shooting 64.1 percent from the floor this season. This is comparable to another 7-footer Illinois has seen twice this season in Zach Edey.

Clingan isn't relied upon the same as Edey is with Purdue, but Illinois struggled with Edey twice this season. 

The first time, in January, Edey ripped into the Illini for 28 points and eighth rebounds. During the second adventure against Edey in March, Illinois limited him to 10 points and 15 rebounds. 

While Edey didn't dominate the scoresheet in March, Purdue's Trey Kaufman-Renn dropped 23 points. UConn has plenty of NBA-caliber players to pick up the slack.

It comes down to the likes of Dain Dainja and Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier to protect the post and win the rebounding game. The stars in this game, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Newton, will get their points.

Illinois needs to do its best to win the other facets of the game.

The bottom line

Either way, win or lose, this season has been a revelation for Illinois.

After a one-and-done loss to Arkansas last year, following a loss to Houston in the Round of 32, which followed a loss to No. 8 seeded Loyola as a No. 1 seed in 2021, the disappointment of failing to get out of the first weekend only remained.

Now, in the Elite Eight, Underwood shook that monkey off his back. He proved he can recruit players that perform their best in the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 1-seeded team that fell to Loyola is still a memory that remains in Underwood's mind.

"The year we were 1 seed, I thought we were really good and had a bad day," Underwood said. "I can't speak to anybody else's successes or disappointments in the tournament, but I felt like that team had as good an opportunity as anybody."

Now, Illinois is a massive upset away from a Final Four.

"It's what makes this event so special is it's not a series. It's one game," Underwood said. "If you don't play well, you go home. And that day Loyola was better than us. Prior to that, there's been a lot of good teams. It's been the best league in the country for a long time. Very passionate, great coaches."

The Illini have a perfect mix. Marcus Domask, who has been at Illinois for just a year, and Hawkins, who has been with Underwood since the 2020-21 season, and the players in between combine to make up the experienced team that has won important games in March.

"It's not like you're running a bunch of young guys who don't know what they're going to do. I know what this group's going to do. I know how they're going to react," Underwood said. "We've been through the trials and tribulations of a long season so you gain confidence from that."


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