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Who would have known that the first bit of Madness would come not from the struggling bluebloods defining the college basketball season or from the perennial Cinderella who everyone is ready to finally crown? The theme of this season has been the quiet failures of Duke, North Carolina and most of all Kentucky, who usually drum up the excitement that makes the sport the multi-billion dollar TV business that it is.
Without them, Gonzaga has ripped through a season like no one before, or at least not since the legendary teams of Bobby Knight and John Wooden. And on a day when The New York Times was lamenting that poor Gonzaga was going to have to finally dominate the Final Four and March Madness in silence, with mostly empty stands, who would’ve known that it would take a team that always lies with its nose pressed frustratingly against the window outside of the sport’s elite to finally, thankfully, wake the season up?
Illinois not only demolished No. 2 Michigan 76-53 Tuesday night, but it also did so in Ann Arbor. The Illini did it without their best player, guard Ayo Dosunmu, who is likely out for a few more days with a concussion apparently and possibly a broken nose.
That broken nose might be the start of something big, by the way. It will go down as the inspiration and new, late direction of this season. Basketball is mostly now about spreading out and hitting 3-point shots. The Illini won Tuesday by packing in, sticking an elbow into the Michigan Wolverines’ kidneys, punching them in the nose and bullying them around the basket the old-fashioned Big Ten way.
College basketball finally had a moment Tuesday night. It was the Big Bang of this season, and I do mean “BANG!”
Nobody predicted that Illinois could. . .oh, wait:
Hmm. So I guess someone DID see this coming after all. Illinois is going to win the national championship. And when someone tweeted back to me that Michigan might be the one, I said they seemed too unreliable.
This isn’t to gloat or anything, but only to point out that — oh hell, who am I kidding? It’s to gloat.
If you’re looking to all the other sites to figure out how to fill out your brackets in a couple of weeks, then good luck to you.
Gonzaga is still everyone’s favorite, of course. They play amazing defense, too, and halfcourt offense, and pretty much everything else. They have actually won more regular season games than any other program since 2010 and always manage to get to at least the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
In theory, while the bluebloods win with one-and-dones, superstar freshmen who come to college for one year of finishing school before going to the NBA, Gonzaga does it by developing players and chemistry over years of togetherness.
Earlier in the season, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was asked if Gonzaga would go undefeated. This is what he told Forbes: “Absolutely. Not even close. COVID (is the) only thing that stops them. Or an injury.’’
But COVID has slowed the development of teams, altered it in ways that no one imagined. A few practices here, a canceled game there. Also, some players fight anxiety from everything surrounding the pandemic, while some don’t.
The season has been impossible to predict, and the rhythm has been busted up.
Illinois has all the tools it needs, the athleticism and guard (Dosunmu) and the big guy in the middle under the basket (Kofi Cockburn), and a coach in Brad Underwood who understands that you can still win with defense and rebounding and who knows how to put pieces together.
After I said the Illini would win the national title a few weeks ago, they promptly went out and lost to Michigan State. It was the best thing that could have happened to them because the Spartans decided to throw some old-fashioned Big Ten muscle at the Illini to see if they could take it.
They couldn’t. Dosunmu got hurt. And Underwood used it as a teaching moment for what to expect. Illinois came back Tuesday ready for a fight and got, basically, all of the game’s rebounds while turning one of the nation’s top offensive teams into a bunch of players who looked at the basket in the same way my dog looks at a vacuum cleaner — with fear.
Meanwhile, they’ll play the entire NCAA Tournament in Indiana, neighbor to Illinois. And Illini fans will surely turn it into a home court advantage as much as possible in COVID times with limited attendance.
So March Madness kicked off on Tuesday, and someone other than Baylor is now ready to stand up to Gonzaga. Who would have known?