NCAA March Madness betting: Midwest region No. 1 seed Illinois had look of a champion down the stretch

Scott Pianowski and Frank Schwab
·8-min read

More region breakdowns from Scott Pianowski and Frank Schwab: East, South, West

The NCAA tournament is a gambler's dream, with non-stop action for the first and second rounds, futures bets, bracket pools and everything in between.

Yahoo Sports' Scott Pianowski and Frank Schwab perused the BetMGM odds and will break down each region from a betting perspective. Here's a look at the Midwest region, headed up by No. 1 seed Illinois:

Is this the year Illinois wins a championship?

FS: I wouldn't fault anyone for taking the Illini to win it all. Their odds of +700 at BetMGM are reasonable too. Winning by 23 at Michigan without Ayo Dosunmu had to be the most impressive single-game performance of the entire season. There are times big man Kofi Cockburn looks like the kid in middle school that's five sizes bigger than everyone else and has parents double-checking his birth certificate. Illinois is top seven in KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings; they're balanced and deep. In Yahoo's Tourney Pick'em, 15.8 percent of users have the Illini winning it all and that's the second-most popular pick. It's hard to pick anyone but Gonzaga, but Illinois is a fine choice if you want to fade the heavily favored Zags. You're not getting a deep sleeper obviously, but I think Illinois is still contrarian enough to be a viable mid-sized bracket pool play.

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) celebrates after defeating Ohio State to win the Big Ten title. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) celebrates after defeating Ohio State to win the Big Ten title. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

SP: I love Illinois and feel confident saying they're the second-best team in the country. But there are two problems with them for pool and handicapping purposes. One, this field is loaded. Landmines everywhere. And two, the Illini are a very public team. There is a stampede to the overflowing bandwagon. Good luck finding value in any market.

In the court, it looks like Illinois has everything. Dosunmu is the wonderful blend of alpha-dog superstar but with a grounded ego. He knows when to include others and when to take over. The mask hasn't hindered him at all; heck, he almost seems to revel in wearing it. Cockburn is a nightmare matchup problem and already has a nuanced game inside (he gets away with so much initiated contact; he's been well-coached). There's plenty of outside shooting, swagger, and cohesiveness. It's hard to believe this team lost six games.

But the second-round game against Loyola or Georgia Tech is scary; Loyola is ninth (ninth!) in the KenPom efficiency ratings, while Georgia Tech is an experienced, turnover-creating machine. And after that lies a potential matchup with Cade Cunningham, maybe the best player in America. The Illini fear no one after surviving the Big Ten tournament, but they could easily get ambushed.

I might pick Illinois anyway. This is why we hash this stuff out. I'm not dug in on much yet.

You certainly know I'm going to be betting against Rick Barnes as often as I can. It's always the same story with that guy; recruits his tail off, then has erratic seasons and plenty of tournament missteps. I fell in love with Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament and will happily keep that slipper on. Don't unpack, Tennessee.

FS: Oh, Rick Barnes. His tournament record is ... not ideal. And Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson's facial injuries could keep him out, or limit him. It was no surprise to see the Volunteers on Pete Thamel's story outlining four teams coaches expect to stumble this week. I've bet Oregon State often this season and they are feisty. I can't say I saw a Pac-12 tournament title coming for them, but they were undervalued on the line all season. Meanwhile, Tennessee was one of those teams that seemed like it should be better and never got there. No hesitation for either of us taking Oregon State on the moneyline.

Is there anyone other than Oregon State you are excited to bet?

FS: I get why people would back Georgia Tech. They just won the ACC tournament. But Loyola Chicago has been on my radar for weeks and there's no turning back now. I'm very interested to see how many points the Ramblers get against Illinois in the second round, if they get past Georgia Tech. I also really like San Diego State. I think the Aztecs' spread is light because Syracuse is a recognizable program. San Diego State doesn't get enough credit for how good it has been. I also like Cleveland State to cover in the first round. Nothing against Houston but I thought Cleveland State looked better than a normal 15 seed during the Horizon tournament and 20 points is too much.

SP: The San Diego State line keeps creeping up, for good reason. The Syracuse zone is a pain in the neck, but at least the Aztecs get time to prepare for it. Syracuse has been a terrible defensive rebounding team all year; they play hard on the interior, but need more beef. It was interesting to see Thamel, a Syracuse grad, fading the Orange on Yahoo Tourney Bracket Now. I'll follow both of you guys and lay the points.

Houston is a team I struggle with. Congratulations, you just smashed a conference that took all of two NCAA bids. The win over Texas Tech is probably their signature moment, but that was in November. I rarely want to bet either side of a 20-point spread, but I will tiptoe around Houston after that.

Is Cade Cunningham capable of becoming a March Madness legend?

FS: Cunningham was as good as advertised for Oklahoma State. While I think USC center Evan Mobley might have a higher NBA upside, Cunningham will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and it's fully understandable why. He's got a fantastically smooth game. Still, I think Oklahoma State is overrated as a No. 4 seed. They are 30th in KenPom's ratings, which should put them in the 8 seed range. The Cowboys lost twice to a bad TCU team. And even if that's not a big deal because OSU was getting better as the season went on, a lot of the Cowboys' wins down the stretch were very close and they're not particularly great at anything. I want to see Oklahoma State go on a long run because Cunningham is a treat to watch, but I'm not sure that's happening. It's not even crazy to think Liberty could upset them in the first round.

SP: Danny Manning was a long time ago. Even Kemba Walker's run — for my money, Walker is the most underrated legend of March — is up on its 10-year anniversary. I get nervous when a team relies this much on one player, because the star simply can't have an off day. It's not that the Cowboys lack talent, but their offense is all routed through their star; Avery Anderson averages 11.7 points a game and everyone else is under 10. I'm in favor of a three-week dance through the region, but I feel like we see 15 Kevin Durants (out in Round 2, bound for NBA) for every one Danny Manning.

Hey, that brings us back to Rick Barnes. Did you know the Volunteers have two lottery-plausible NBA talents? (Off to bet a little more on Oregon State.)

Is there value on anyone to win the region, or is it Illinois or nothing?

FS: I don't think Illinois is an awful play to win the region at +150, though I hate being that chalky on a team that needs to win four games.

Since I've talked so much about Loyola Chicago as a long shot, I have to at least give them a nod at +1000. It's being a bit of a KenPom truther to like them as much as I do, but it's rare to see a team in the top 10 of KenPom's rankings get an 8 seed. They're elite on defense and good all around. I don't love the potential second-round matchup against Illinois — or getting Georgia Tech in the first round, for that matter — but it's good odds for a legit team. I'd like to put Oklahoma State here too, because even though I poured some cold water on the Cowboys in the section above, anyone who has seen Cade Cunningham wouldn't be that surprised if he took over this tournament. There's just no value at +400.

SP: I'm going to have Illinois on my pool sheets. I'm not sure I can endorse them at +150. If you like them to win four games, bet them a la carte, you'll do better that way — and have some hedge options later if they survive.

West Virginia might be the best value, grabbing +600. Huggy Bear has an offense for once! I could also be nudged into Georgia Tech; if they can win a coin flip game against Loyola (deservedly favored) and get lucky against Illinois, the second weekend wouldn't seem impossible. They're at least fairly priced at +2000.

(BetMGM screen shot)
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