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Top-5 March Madness Favorites Include Villanova, Iowa, Baylor, Gonzaga and … Illinois?

Blair Johnson

by Blair Johnson in College Basketball

Updated Mar 18, 2021 · 12:38 PM PDT

Kofi Cockburn happy reactiopn
Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, right, celebrates one of his shots with Illinois' Da'Monte Williams (20) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
  • Illinois has joined Villanova, Iowa, Baylor and Gonzaga in the top-five March Madness favorites
  • The Fighting Illini have gone from a +4875 longshot on July 17 to +1067 as of Oct. 8
  • Brad Underwood’s program beat Iowa in the last game of the regular season to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season title

The Illinois men’s basketball team has become a top-five favorite in the latest 2021 National Championship odds, joining Villanova, Iowa, Baylor and Gonzaga.

The Fighting Illini were as long as +5000 this summer and were +1067, on average, as recently as July 17. Now their odds are shorter than Duke, .

The season starts Nov. 25, with teams allowed to start practicing next Wednesday, Oct. 14. The NCAA Division I Council set out a few other rules for this brave-new COVID world we live inn, including no exhibitions, at least four non-conference games, and a maximum of 27 regular-season games.

2021 NCAA Tournament Title Odds

Team Odds
Villanova +817
Iowa +883
Gonzaga +917
Baylor +933
Illinois +1067
Virginia +1067
Kentucky +1333
Kansas +1367
Duke +1467
Wisconsin +1533

Odds taken Oct. 8

Brad Underwood’s program has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2013 (long before his arrival). But after clinching a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with a thrilling win over Iowa in the last game of the 2019-20 season, Illinois seems poised to contend for a spot in the Final Four this upcoming season.

The Illini have made a dramatic climb up the 2021 March Madness odds over the last 12 weeks. That climb was keyed by  Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn each announcing they were opting out of the NBA Draft and into the 2020-21 season.

Plus, there’s a growing sentiment that Illinois is among the group of teams (including Gonzaga, Tennessee and Creighton) that has the best chance to pick up where they left off last season.

Is Underwood’s Cinderella team of a year ago poised for a true breakout this season — one that includes all the postseason spoils?

Star-Studded Return

With point guard Dosunmu and the seven-foot Cockburn at the forefront of Illinois’ returnees, the Illini are set up for success. In fact, Illinois has over 70-percent of its minutes returning from last year’s 21-10 squad, and it starts with their junior point guard.

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Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points and shot 48.4% from the field last season while also leading the Illini to a 13-7 conference mark. The Chicago-area native  had a penchant for hitting clutch shots.

Meantime, sophomore Cockburn presents an imposing presence in the paint.

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The Big Ten Freshman of the Year averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds and posted 12 double-doubles in a sparkling debut season. If not for coronavirus complications to the draft process, both would likely be headed to the next level.

Instead, the duo gives Illinois a distinct advantage heading into the campaign in Champaign.

Quality and Quantity

Underwood doesn’t just have the one and the five locked down. With veterans like Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili joining Dosunmu  and Cockburn, Underwood’s roster is chock-full of players that are familiar with his system — and funny too.

While the group’s offensive and defensive efficiency (according to kenpom.com) may have fallen off a bit in February and March last season, their experience will pay off in 2021.

Stacked Conference

Historically, a big part of NCAA Tournament success boils down to seeding. One of the key factors the selection committee looks at when forming March Madness brackets is strength of schedule.

That’s what makes Illinois — as well as Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin — decent bets to win it all in this Age of COVID. With fewer non-conference games and multi-team events to draw comparisons, the committee will be closely monitoring how teams perform in their leagues. The Big Ten might just be the best in the land this upcoming season.

With the Hawkeyes bringing back big man Luka Garza, last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, and Michigan State forward Aaron Henry also returning, there’s not shortage of mega-watt talent in the Midwest.

All of these factors point to Illinois being a reasonable investment. That said, it may be wise to hold off on making a preseason wager on the Illini. Let the conference slate play out a bit — perhaps even after a loss or two — than grab the reigning conference co-champs as a buy-low option when their odds inevitably drop.

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