ILLINOIS, USA — Let's get the disclaimer out of the way right off the bat. I am a Mizzou grad. I would give up just about every other sports wish for the rest of my life to see a Tiger football or basketball national title.
However... that doesn't mean I can't appreciate what the Illinois Fighting Illini have done on the basketball court this season.
I've always viewed Missouri and Illinois as "fun" rivals, as opposed to say, Missouri and Kansas, who are about as far away from that as you can get. Those are mortal enemies. No wiggle room there.
But especially growing up in the St. Louis area — on the Illinois side to boot — I followed both schools to a certain degree. And even the most hardheaded Missouri fan should be able to agree that this season, the Illini are special.
Before the arrival of COVID-19 shut down last year's tournament, the Illini thought that may have been their year to make a special run. Of course, nobody got that chance.
But now they've reached their full form.
Led by an actual masked hero in Ayo Dosunmu who has established a reputation as the most lethal closer in college hoops and a literal behemoth of a center in Kofi Cockburn who dunks on anybody at any time, Illinois has turned into an absolute wagon.
Other than undefeated Gonzaga, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Illinois the most impressive team of the 2020-2021 season.
They didn't always look this dominant. After all, remember who won Braggin' Rights again this year... cough, cough. But what matters is what they look like now. And right now they look like they've only lost one game since Jan. 19, which... yep, checks out.
Bolstered by passing wizard Andre Curbelo, instant energy boost Giorgi Bezhanishvili, sharpshooting freshman Adam Miller and one of my favorite players in all of college hoops, senior Trent Frazier, the supporting cast in this production is one that champions need to have.
And this tournament will be a bust if the Illini don't come out as champions.
16 years ago Illinois fans had their hearts broken against North Carolina in the national title game. That team is still pretty immortal to this day. Imagine if this year's team actually won the whole darn thing?
Illinois did get a pretty tough draw in my rudimentary bracket estimation. Drexel in the first game shouldn't be a problem, but then things get interesting.
They could face in-state foe Loyola Chicago and all that winning mojo or ACC champion Georgia Tech in the round of 32. That's a tough second game, no matter who it is.
And if they win that match-up, Illinois could be staring down top NBA prospect Cade Cunningham in the Sweet 16. Far from a cakewalk.
This program with all its legendary names and exciting teams has never won a national title. The momentum, talent and that special "feeling" you sometimes get the sense of with certain teams is there this tournament. Now all they have to do is keep riding the wave.
Now here's a picture from Braggin' Rights for good measure to make up for all that nice stuff I just said about the Illini.