March 14, 2021
All season long, it was clear that one local college hoops team would still be playing once the season ended and the NCAA Tournament began. And then late last week, the basketball gods provided Philly sports fans with a bit of a gift — a second March Madness berth, as Drexel pulled off the CAA Tournament upset and earned its place in the tourney as the conference champion and automatic bid.
Now that the brackets have officially been unveiled, it's time to take a look at what comes next for the two Philly teams, like who they'll be up against, when they'll play first — and what awaits them down the road should they advance.
Let's start with the higher seeded team, the Villanova Wildcats, who find themselves in the field of 68 for the eighth straight year after winning titles in 2016 and 2018...
Record: 16-6 (11-4, 1st in Big East) | Ranking: 14 (AP), 11 (Coaches)
Leaders: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 15.7 PPG | Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 8.3 RPG | Collin Gillespie, 4.6 APG
Key injuries: Gillispie (knee, season over), Justin Moore (ankle)
Season recap: The Wildcats finished the regular season with the best record in the Big East, but they were badly bitten by the injury bug late in the year, losing senior starter and second leading scorer Colin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury. Two games later, the team lost fellow guard and starter Justin Moore to a severe ankle injury, that kept him out of the conference tournament by eighth-seeded Georgetown in their first postseason game. That's not the way Jay Wright wanted his team, which has now lost three of their last four (all to unranked teams), heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Villanova now finds itself limping into the postseason, but still managed to earn themselves a fairly high seed, which may have more to do with pedigree than anything else. Guard play usually rules the day in March, especially for Wright's teams, and not having his two backcourt leaders could spell disaster for the 'Cats.
In addition to traditional injuries, 'Nova has also had to deal with its fair share of COVID cancellations, with 11 of their games being either postponed or cancelled. As a result — not to mention a relatively weak Big East field this year — they only played four games against ranked opponents all season, a stark departure from past years when their schedule was littered with Top 25 matchups. In those four games, however, the Wildcats went 3-1, with their lone loss coming to conference rival Creighton (they also beat Creighton later in the season) and non-conference wins coming against Texas and Arizona State earlier in the season.
First-round matchup: No. 12 Winthrop (23-1, 17-1 Big South) | Friday, 9:57 p.m. (TNT)
First-round odds: Villanova -6, via Pa.Unibet.com
Ah, the dreaded 12-5 matchup for the 'Cats, who will take on Winthrop on Friday in their first-round game. The small school out of South Carolina boasts a big resume coming into the tourney this year, as they lost just one game all season and faced little resistance in the Big South tournament en route to earning the conference's automatic bid. Here's more from the Indianapolis Star:
The Eagles are definitely a team to consider for your Cinderella. They were the preseason Big South favorite and lived up to the expectations, winning their first 16 games — extending their winning streak to 21 over two seasons — before a 57-55 loss to UNC-Ashville on Jan. 29. They had 13 scheduled days off following that game but returned to win their final four regular season games then blew through the Big South Tournament, winning by 29, 21 and 27 points to finish 23-1. [indystar.com]
The Star also points out that Winthrop upset No. 6 seed Notre Dame back in 2007 as an 11-seed. Oh, and one of their best players is named Adonis Arms. That's not a typo.
This is going to be a difficult first-round test for Villanova, and the odds suggest as much, their -6 spread is the second smallest of the No. 5 seeds.
The rest of their region: Here's a look at the rest of the South Region, which features Baylor as the No. 1 seed, as well as a few big-name programs with lower-than-usual seedings, like No. 8 UNC and No. 9 Wisconsin. If Villanova can secure a first-round win, they could find themselves with a rematch against Purdue, who upset the 'Cats back in the second round of the 2019 tournament.
And now, let's take a look at Drexel, which will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996...
Record: 12-7 (4-5, 6th in CAA) | Ranking: N/A
Leaders: Camren Wynter, 16.8 PPG | James Butler, 9.2 RPG | Camren Wynter, 5.3 APG
Key injuries: N/A
Season recap: With just 12 wins on the season — not to mention a sub-.500 conference record — it's safe to say that no one outside of Drexel students and alums really thought the Dragons would still be playing this late into March. And even some of them likely doubted their team's chances, but after an improbable run through the CAA tournament, here we are, with Drexel getting ready to play its first NCAA Tournament game in 25 years. In fact, it's been almost a decade since the Dragons even made the NIT tournament, but in less than a week, they'll be playing in the big dance.
So, how did Drexel get it done? Well, we'll have a lot more on their team in the lead up to their first-round matchup against Illinois, but suffice it to say it wasn't easy. In fact, they played just one game in the month leading up to their run in the CAA tourney due to four straight COVID cancellations.
They might not be the most dangerous team in the tournament, but Illinois — or any other potential opponent — would be unwise to overlook them, as they can get hot from deep. They have three players on their roster who average at least four three-point attempts per game (Camren Wynter, Mate Okros and Zach Walton) and all three shoot at least 39% from deep. As a team, they shot 37.2% from three during the season and used that shooting to help carry them to that conference tournament win. In fact, during that three-game run through the CAA tourney, the Dragons shot an absurd 56.9% from three. And if you want to go back further, they're making 51.6% of their attempts since the start of February on 18.5 shots per game.
That's the kind of shooting upsets are made of.
First-round matchup: No. 1 Illinois (23-6, 16-4 Big Ten) | Friday, 1:15 p.m. (TBS)
First-round odds: Drexel +22, via Pa.Unibet.com
Unfortunately for Drexel, the selection committee did them no favors by making them a 16-seed, meaning they'll need to pull off a historic upset if they hope at advancing past the first round. That's only happened once in the entire history of the tourney (2018, when UMBC beat Virginia), so it's hard to see it happening again, but if there was ever a season for something truly unexpected to happen in March, it's this season. That being said, the Illini are a deserving No. 1 seed and won't be an easy out.
For starters, Illinois will have a ton of momentum as they, like Drexel, also just won their conference tourney by beating Iowa in the semifinals before knocking off Ohio State in overtime just minutes before the bracket was revealed. And they've been playing at this high of a level for quite some time, losing just one game since January 16 and beating eight ranked teams in over that span. And just since the start of March, they've won four games against Top 10 teams.
Illinois has a nice inside-out game, led by guard Ayo Dosunmu and his 20.9 PPG and 5.4 APG. On the inside, it's center Kofi Cockburn leading the way with 17.6 PPG of his own to go along with a team-high 9.6 rebounds per game. As a team, they're one of the better three-point shooting teams in the country (38th overall) and shoot at a slightly better clip than Drexel. On top of that, they're also one of the best rebounding teams in the country (12th overall). It's going to be a tough matchup for Drexel, who will likely need to shoot the lights out just to hang with the top seeded Illini.
The rest of their region: Here's a look at what awaits Drexel should they pull off the massive upset:
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