(7) Illinois vs. (10) Colorado
(7) Illinois Fighting Illini
After missing out on last year’s tournament and parting ways with head coach Bruce Weber as a result, the Fighting Illini (22-12, 8-10) are back in the big dance for the first time under John Groce. The team had their struggles during regular season play in the Big 10, but they have a resume filled with big wins as they knocked off Gonzaga, Indiana, Ohio State and Butler. Overall, they were 4-4 against the RPI top 25 and their strength of schedule was in the top 10. The Fighting Illini, who lost sophomore center Meyers Leonard to the 2012 NBA Draft lottery, is led by a trio of guards now in Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams. Seniors Paul and Richardson average a combined 29 points, eight rebounds and four assists a contest. Paul can get hot at any moment, and when he does he can score like few in the country can. The Fighting Illini struggle when they go up against teams who can contain them out on the perimeter. On the year, they averaged 69 points a night, relying heavily on the three ball, which they can live and die by at times. They were outrebounded by their opponents on the year and only average 10 assists as a team. If the Fighting Illini are going to win multiple tournament games for the first time since 2005, they’re going to need Paul, Richardson and Abrams to channel their inner Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, the trio of guards who led the Fighting Illini to the national championship game eight years ago.
(10) Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffaloes (21-11, 10-8) couldn’t repeat as Pac-12 conference tournament champions, but they did do just enough to earn their second straight ticket to the big dance. They lacked consistency after their strong start to the year, but they do have one of the deepest teams in the field. Spencer Diwiddie is their leading scorer, pouring in 15.6 points a night while also dishing out a team-high three assists. Three other players – Askia Booker, Andre Roberson and Josh Scott – also score in double figures. Roberson is a future pro who can really impact the game without scoring the basketball. He’s worth keeping an eye on. The Buffaloes played the 18th most difficult schedule in the country, going an even 9-9 against the RPI top 100. They suffered a couple of bad losses to Utah and Oregon State, but have beaten Arizona and Oregon, two of the best in their league, and Colorado State. They are not one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league, mainly working inside of the arc and only averaging 10 assists as a team. They’re prone to leave points at the free throw line. For the Buffaloes to advance, they need widespread contributions so they can constantly attack the opposition in different ways.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: Colorado. Tough game to call, but we’ve got the Buffaloes’ defense being the difference maker.