By Scott Richey
It wasn’t that long ago where all 13 Division I college basketball teams in Illinois were getting shut out of the NCAA tournament on the regular. College hoops in the state has certainly improved, and beat writer Scott Richey has the full breakdown:
Shot in the arm: Turns out the preseason All-American honors were spot on for Ayo Dosunmu. The junior guard is playing at a career-best level across the board — literally — from scoring, rebounds and assists to his entire 51/42/80 shooting slash.
Reason for pause: Big men have a tendency to get fouled. Take Kofi Cockburn’s team-leading 70 free throw attempts. At issue currently is the fact Cockburn, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Coleman Hawkins are shooting a combined 52.7 percent at the line.
Path to Indy: The bulk of the grind that is Big Ten play still awaits the Illini. But the first third of the season has them well positioned by every metric as the No. 12 team in the AP Top 25, No. 7 team in KenPom and No. 4 team in the first NET ranking of the season.Northwestern (6-3)
➜ Shot in the arm: The 2019-20 season was Chris Collins’ worst as the Wildcats’ coach. That it played out featuring mostly freshmen and sophomores in the rotation, though, was one sliver of a positive to hold on to. That continuity this season has certainly helped, particularly with the improved play of Miller Kopp (14.4 points) and Pete Nance (11.7 points, 6.1 rebounds)
➜ Reason for pause: Which is the real Northwestern? The team that beat two Top-25 teams at home for a 3-0 start to Big Ten play? Or the team that got run twice on the road against Top-25 teams? The answer is probably somewhere in between trending a bit toward the latter.
➜ Path to Indy: Nothing about Northwestern’s nonconference slate will help fill out its NCAA tournament résumé. How the Wildcats fare in the Big Ten will be the determining factor, and the league’s good enough that a .500 conference record might be enough for an at-large bid.
Loyola Chicago (7-2)
➜ Shot in the arm: Yes, Cameron Krutwig is still around. He had a breakout freshman season on Loyola’s 2018 Final Four team and has only gotten better. The 6-foot-9 center with an old-school game and an uncanny passing ability leads the Ramblers in scoring (16.5 points) and rebounding (6.5).
➜ Reason for pause: The Ramblers haven’t been able to recapture the magic of their 2018 run in the years since. The type of upsets they pulled then haven’t been repeated, including this year with competitive games that ultimately became losses to Wisconsin and Richmond.
➜ Path to Indy: The top seed in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament won’t necessarily be decided this weekend, but the winner of the two-game series between Loyola and currently unbeaten Drake in Des Moines, Iowa, will give the victor a potential leg up.
➜ Shot in the arm: Elijah Childs provided an immediate boost as a freshman, and there’s an argument to be made the 6-foot-8 senior forward has been Bradley’s best player the past three years. That includes his status as the team’s leading scorer (14.4 points) and rebounder (7.7) this season.
➜ Reason for pause: Bradley has a particularly stingy defense inside the three-point line. The best in the county in fact, limiting teams to just 35.8 percent on two-pointers. The Braves’ own offense is the question mark in both inefficiency and an inability to get to the free throw line.
➜ Path to Indy: The Braves shocked the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference the past two seasons with unexpected Arch Madness title runs. Odds are they’ll need to make it a trifecta with another one this spring in St. Louis.
Southern Illinois (7-3)
➜ Shot in the arm: The Salukis broke Butler’s 59-game nonconference home winning streak with a 76-73 victory Dec. 21 at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Sophomore forward Marcus Domask scored a game-high 26 points in the win — fitting for the Salukis’ leading scorer this season.
➜ Reason for pause: SIU has gotten off to a rough start in Missouri Valley Conference play. Part of that is dropping two games at unbeaten Drake, but the 12-point home loss to Evansville was a bit of a head scratcher given the Salukis won by six the day before.
➜ Path to Indy: The fight at the top of the MVC will be a tough one between Drake, Loyola Chicago and maybe/probably Bradley. That’s SIU’s competition. The more regular-season wins, the better as to avoid one of those teams early in the MVC tournament and make a title run under second-year coach and former Salukis point guard Bryan Mullins.
➜ Shot in the arm: Getting Teyvion Kirk to come “home” turned out to be a real boon for first-year coach Luke Yaklich. The Joliet native started his career at Ohio, sat out last year in his lone season at Colorado State and now leads the Flames in scoring (13.7 points), rebounds (7.1) and assists (8.9).
➜ Reason for pause: UIC is good at fouling and not good at getting to the free-throw line itself. The Flames are averaging just more than 20 fouls per game, but few teams nationally get to the line less frequently than the not quite 14 free-throw attempts per game they’re averaging.
➜ Path to Indy: The Horizon League will likely send just a single team to the NCAA tournament since the last time it sent two was the 2008-09 season (when Butler was still a member). One of only two conference unbeatens remaining, the Flames have to claim the tournament title.
➜ Shot in the arm: Immediate eligibility for Valparaiso transfer Javon Freeman-Liberty gave DePaul a rather dynamic backcourt pairing with Charlie Moore. The former Public League standouts are averaging a combined 30 points, 9.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists.
➜ Reason for pause: The fact the Blue Demons have only played three games certainly qualifies. It was DePaul’s own COVID-19 issues that delayed the start of its season to Dec. 23 and ongoing issues in the Big East that could further complicate the schedule moving forward.
➜ Path to Indy: As of now, the Blue Demons are on pace to play the NCAA-required 13 games to even have NCAA tournament eligibility, so there’s that. Actually making the tournament for the first time since 2004 will undoubtedly require winning the Big East tournament.
Eastern Illinois (4-5)
➜ Shot in the arm: As Josiah Wallace goes, so do the Panthers. The 6-foot-4 senior guard has led EIU in scoring since he arrived in Charleston as a sophomore from Olney Central College. Nothing’s changed. The Marshall native is averaging a career-high 17.9 points this season.
➜ Reason for pause: The Panthers have the NCAA record holder for most consecutive games played with a made three-pointer in senior guard Mack Smith, who broke former Illini Cory Bradford’s record run, and a Top 50 three-point shooting team. They also have one of the worst three-point defenses in the country.
➜ Path to Indy: EIU hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since Austin Peay’s goaltend sent Kyle Hill, Henry Domercant and Co. to the big dance in 2001. This year’s group will have to get past Belmont and maybe Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky and others in the one-bid Ohio Vally Conference.
Illinois State (3-4)
➜ Shot in the arm: Illinois State coach Dan Muller is leaning on his sophomore class — and heavily. The trio of DJ Horne, Josiah Strong and Antonio Reeves are all averaging double-digit points, and are the only Redbirds to do so at this point of the season.
➜ Reason for pause: The Redbirds’ three wins aren’t exactly much to write home about, including a 10-point victory against UMass-Lowell on a neutral site and home wins against Greenville and Chicago State. Torching Greenville for 177 points was notable, but only for its novelty. Greenville, after all, is a Division III program.
➜ Path to Indy: The Missouri Valley Conference has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament just four times in the last 10 years. Currently at the bottom of the conference, ISU would likely need a surprise, upset run in the MVC tournament to claim the automatic bid.
➜ Shot in the arm: The transfer portal was good to SIUE this summer, with Sidney Wilson joining the team after two years at UConn. Wilson was a four-star, Top-75 recruit, and the 6-foot-7 wing is already the Cougars’ No. 1 offensive option by averaging 13.3 points.
➜ Reason for pause: SIUE actually shoots the ball fairly well, with a Top-100 effective field-goal percentage as a team. It’s holding on to the ball to get those chances that’s a problem considering the Cougars turn it over on nearly a quarter of their possessions.
➜ Path to Indy: The only path is to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, and that means actually qualifying for the conference tournament first. That’s something the Cougars have only done four times in their eight years in the OVC, and they were one-and-done each time.
Western Illinois (2-7)
➜ Shot in the arm: A new coaching staff — particularly one with Nick Irvin as an assistant — helped in rebuilding the roster this offseason. Adding multiple former Chicago standouts has paid off with Tamell Pearson the team’s leading scorer (12.8 points) and rebounder (7.6). The Morgan Park grad and UAB transfer was high school teammates with Ayo Dosunmu and Adam Miller.
➜ Reason for pause: A new coaching staff and several new players also means the Leathernecks are a work in progress. That’s shown in the results, with just two wins so far and only one of those against another Division I team (UT Martin) almost three weeks ago.
➜ Path to Indy: The Summit League is a one-bid conference. A bid that’s belonged to either South Dakota State or North Dakota State the past nine seasons. Two double-digit losses to the Bison already shows this might not be the Leathernecks’ year.
Northern Illinois (1-8)
➜ Shot in the arm: Not a lot of positives so far for the 1-8 Huskies. Sophomore guard Tyler Cochran is about it. The Bolingbrook graduated missed three games in early December, but is the team’s leading scorer (13.8 points) and rebounder (7.4) as the Huskies continue their long rebuilding process.
➜ Reason for pause: A 1-8 start with that lone win coming against Chicago State on Dec. 18 saw Northern Illinois cut the cord on the 2020-21 season by firing coach Mark Montgomery in his 10th season. Blowout losses at home and on the road didn’t help his cause.
➜ Path to Indy: The Huskies essentially bailed on the season when they fired Montgomery to start the new year. That they’re projected to finish last in Mid-American Conference play sort of hurts their chances at a surprise (like, seriously unexpected) run at the NCAA tourney.
Chicago State (0-9)
➜ Shot in the arm: Coreyoun Rushin spent some time out west at the College of Southern Idaho and Idaho State before returning home. The Westinghouse grad ultimately appeared in just two games, but his play (12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game) gives at least a little hope for next year.
➜ Reason for pause: How about the fact the Cougars opted out of the 2020-21 season after nine games? Can’t blame them, though. By the sixth game they were down to just one coach and eight healthy, available players.
➜ Path to Indy: Chicago State wasn’t going to make it even if it didn’t cancel the rest of its season. The Cougars have just two winning seasons in their Division I history — 1985-86 and 2008-09 — and have won single-digit games 25 times in the last 36 seasons.