Illinois was still cutting down the nets in Indianapolis after a thrilling overtime victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game when the bracket was revealed for the NCAA Tournament.
The Illini will attempt to cut down another set of nets in Indy as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.
Led by All-American candidates Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the Fighting Illini earned the third No. 1 seed in school history and their first since 2005, when a team led by Deron Williams and Luther Head romped through March before they finally lost to North Carolina in the national championship game.
“Call me old school,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood, “but I think there’s nothing better than hearing your name and see it come across the screen. It’s awesome and to see it up there” – on the Lucas Oil Stadium video boards – “after such a hard-fought game was really special. What a great moment what a great feeling.”
The third-ranked Fighting Illini, who will open the tournament against Colonial Athletic Conference champ Drexel, anchor an intriguing region filled with surprising upstarts and mid-major monsters.
Seventh-ranked Houston earned the No. 2 seed after romping past Cincinnati on Sunday to earn its first American Athletic Conference Tournament title. West Virginia was seeded third and Big 12 rival Oklahoma State fourth after making a run to the Big 12 Tournament title game, where Cade Cunningham and the Cowboys lost to Texas.
Fifth-seeded Tennessee drew a first-round game against No. 12 seed Oregon State, which won the Pac-12 Tournament title after the Beavers were picked to finish last in the preseason poll. March darling Loyola Chicago was the No. 8 seed and will face ninth-seeded Georgia Tech, who earned an automatic bid with a stunning Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title.
Syracuse was considered a bubble team but squeaked into the field as the No. 11 seed. The Orange will play sixth-seeded San Diego State with the winner facing the Mountaineers or No. 14 seed Morehead State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
As for the Dragons, who get one of the hottest teams in the nation to start things off?
“Every challenge is an opportunity,” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said. “We’re going to play the Big Ten champions and they’re going to play the Colonial champions – and we’ll see what happens.”
Tennessee, which won its first seven games before a mid-season swoon, is making its third NCAA Tournament trip under Rick Barnes after losing to Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday.
The Vols have a big question mark, though. Senior forward John Fulkerson’s status remains in question after he missed the SEC semifinal when a pair of elbows from Florida’s Omar Payne left him with a concussion and facial fracture.
San Diego State thought it had a national title contender, when it went 30-2 with one of the losses in the Mountain West Tournament title game. But a year after the NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19, the Aztecs finally get their shot after going 23-4 and beating Utah State for the conference tournament title.
“Everybody that plays for us contributes,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said, “and it’s a different player every night.”
Seventh-seeded Clemson and No. 10 seed Rutgers could stand for a bit more momentum heading to Indianapolis. The Tigers were the fifth seed in the ACC Tournament and lost their first game to Miami, while the Scarlet Knights have lost four of their last seven games and were trounced by Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament.
Oklahoma State drew a tough date with No. 14 seed Liberty, which won its third straight Atlantic Sun title. Two of the Flames’ five losses came by single digits to Purdue and Missouri, two teams that also made the NCAA field.
Horizon League Tournament champ Cleveland State will play Houston as the No. 15 seed. It’s the third NCAA trip for the Vikings, who reached the Sweet 16 in 1986 and won a first-round game in 2009.
ORANGE FEELING JUICED
Syracuse lost three out of four games in early January, two of them to lowly Pittsburgh, and the Orange spent the rest of the season trying to play catch-up. But they still didn’t know where they stood on the NCAA Tournament bubble after they beat North Carolina State and lost to Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
“That was the low part of the season. There was every reason for negativity to come out,” said Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who is taking his 35th team to the tournament. “Everybody thought we weren’t going to be anywhere, maybe not even make it to the NIT at that stage. Where we were, we’re happy to have the challenge in front of us.”