Chicago Sun-Times


Overachiev­ing Wildcats, inconsiste­nt Illini both are capable of moving on — or losing — in first round


Idon’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be there when rivals Northweste­rn and Illinois collide in the Elite Eight in Las Vegas.

If only, right?

It might take a miracle for either team — let alone both — to make it that far.

Which one has a better chance to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament? Is it the Wildcats, the West Region’s No. 7 seed, who open Thursday (6:35 p.m., truTV) against 10seed Boise State in Sacramento, California? Or is it the Illini, the West’s 9 seed, who open Thursday (3:30 p.m., TBS) against 8-seed Arkansas in Des Moines, Iowa?

Well, it depends how you look at it. The Wildcats have been the more consistent, more together team, led by the experience­d guard tandem of Boo Buie and Chase Audige and squeezing every drop from the rest of a no-name crew.

The Illini seemingly have more talent and have had flashes — especially early, in wins against UCLA and Texas — when their ceiling has looked very high. But this is one of the most up-and-down teams in the entire field.

And both teams are, at least in certain respects, looking in the mirror at their firstround opponents. Like Northweste­rn, Boise State plays its guts out and was driven by its defense into a tie for second place in its conference, the Mountain West; you know what you’re going to get with the Wildcats and the Broncos. Like Illinois, Arkansas was extremely dangerous to others and way too often damaging to itself in its league, the SEC; you have no idea what you’re going to get from the Illini and the Razorbacks.

Can Northweste­rn get through to the second round? Sure.

“We know we’re going to have our hands full Thursday,” coach Chris Collins said, “but that’s what it is in the NCAA Tournament — everybody’s really good.” Can Illinois get through? Sure. “There’s no pressure on us,” coach Brad Underwood said. “We just need to let our hair down, so to speak, and go play like we’re capable.”

For the record, I’m picking the Wildcats to win and the Illini to lose.

But it will be surprising if both games don’t have a could-go-either-way feel into the closing minutes. The Broncos bang around a lot like a Big Ten team — especially 6-7, 232-pound leading scorer Tyson Degenhart — and all five starters average in double figures in scoring. Guards Marcus Shaver Jr. and Max Rice are right up there with Buie and Audige. But the Mountain West has performed terribly as a conference in the Big Dance in recent years.

The Razorbacks are wildly talented, with freshman guards Nick Smith and Anthony Black in every NBA lottery projection. Top scorer and fellow guard Ricky Council IV is a promising NBA prospect, too. This might be the most unusual team in the tournament — a bunch of ridiculous­ly athletic guards who don’t shoot threes. In today’s game, the Hogs, who run all game and live for layups and fast-break buckets, are total outliers with how they play. They can beat anybody or lose to anybody, much like the Illini.

One win is nice. Two is really getting somewhere — in this case, to the Sweet 16 in Las Vegas.

For Northweste­rn to pull that off, it likely would have to beat UCLA in the second round. The first thought: That’s just not possible. The second: But the Bruins lost Jaylen Clark, one of their top players, to a season-ending injury last week and then saw big man Adem Bona get hurt in the Pac-12 tournament. Will Bona play Thursday? We don’t know. The Bruins nearly beat Arizona for the tournament title without both players, but they’re a vulnerable team.

Illinois’ road is undoubtedl­y harder, with No. 1 Kansas in the way. Going against former Illini coach Bill Self would be quite a story, especially with Self having spent the entire Big 12 tournament in the hospital after a standard heart catheteriz­ation.

The first thought: There’s no shot the Illini can beat the defending national champion Jayhawks. The second: But, wait, didn’t the Illini beat UCLA and Texas? Kansas was blown out by Texas twice just this very month.

Have we concluded anything here? Probably not. Sorry.

Three-dot dash

Clearly, the Big Ten team with the best chance to do damage is East No. 1 seed Purdue. But the Boilermake­rs had to empty the tank to win the conference tournament by two points against Penn State, and they seemed to run out of gas toward the end as the Nittany Lions rallied and nearly stole the title. That’s not a good sign, and All-American center Zach Edey still doesn’t have all that special a supporting cast. The Boilers easily could lose in the second round to Memphis or Florida Atlantic . . . .

Speaking of Penn State, its firstround matchup against Texas A&M in the Midwest is an old-schooler’s dream. The Lions are experience­d and tough as nails. The Aggies gave SEC foes fits all season for similar reasons and definitely should have been seeded higher than the 7 line. Will this be coach Micah Shrewsberr­y’s last game at PSU before a basketball school throws money at him that he can’t refuse? . . .

My bracket has no Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16. I’ll be wrong about that, hopefully. Not “the best league in the country,” though, no matter how many times its coaches say it is . . . .

If you ignore records and seeds and just look at how all the teams are playing, you have to call Duke one of the best teams in the tournament. Talk about peaking at the right time. Then again, first-round foe Oral Roberts is super scary. The O-Bobs don’t mess around . . . .

This is a great group of 12 seeds. It’s always fashionabl­e to pick 12s over 5s in the first round, but VCU, Charleson, Drake and Oral Roberts are all so good. At least two of them will advance . . . .

Of the top seeds, No. 1 overall Alabama was put on by far the easiest path to the final four by the selection committee. The South is Bumsville compared to the others . . . .

Illinois opened as a 3½-point underdog. Northweste­rn-Boise is a coin flip.

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 ?? MICHAEL ALLIO/AP ?? Northweste­rn and Illinois could meet in the Elite Eight, but they both have incredibly challengin­g roads in front of them.
MICHAEL ALLIO/AP Northweste­rn and Illinois could meet in the Elite Eight, but they both have incredibly challengin­g roads in front of them.

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