Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Duquesne Dukes Pick & Prediction MARCH 23rd 2024

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Illinois and Duquesne last faced off in the NCAA Tournament during the Truman administration.

Before Thursday, the Dukes’ most recent tourney win came months before man landed on the moon.

That’s historic, to be sure, but crafting a new narrative is the focus for both programs lately. On Saturday, one can advance that objective as Illinois meets Duquesne in an NCAA Tournament second-round game in Omaha, Neb.

The third-seeded Fighting Illini (27-8) realize they’ll be favored against the No. 11 Dukes (25-11). It’s the Big Ten tournament champion against an Atlantic 10 outfit that finished sixth in the conference regular season.

Still, Illinois also knows it’s March. After surging to a conference tournament title of their own, the upstart Dukes secured their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1969 with a 71-67 win against No. 6 BYU.

“To me, that was not an upset,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “That was not shocking. The Atlantic 10 is a tremendous league, and I think (Duquesne) started 0-5 if I’m correct. Then to get to this position, that’s on a coach. That’s on a coach leading his players in the right direction.”

Although he’s self-deprecating about his planned retirement at season’s end, Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot has the Dukes aiming for another milestone: the Sweet 16.

“They just won’t let me retire, man,” Dambrot said. “I’m trying to retire. We keep winning games, they’ll make me an old man.”

Duquesne might’ve turned Dambrot prematurely crotchety Friday, squandering a 14-point lead in the second half against BYU before recovering down the stretch.

Dae Dae Grant swished four free throws in the final 10 seconds en route to a team-high 19 points. Jakub Necas (12 points) and Jimmy Clark III (11) also scored in double figures.

“We just made enough plays,” Dambrot said. “Again, nothing has come easy for this group. We’ve had to do it the hard way.”

Illinois relied on depth and a big run midway through the second half to pull away from 14th-seeded Morehead State in its first-round matchup.

With the Fighting Illini searching for a scoring option beyond Terrence Shannon Jr., who scored 19 of the team’s 39 first-half points, veteran transfer guard Marcus Domask and big man Dain Dainja stepped up.

Domask posted his first career triple-double — and only the 10th in official tourney history — with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Dainja had 17 of his 21 points after the break.

Dainja is a force on both sides of the floor and added eight rebounds and two blocks in the 85-69 win. While Shannon (26 points) remains the focal point of the Illinois attack, Dainja presents matchup problems of his own, especially as he’s taken on increased minutes in the postseason.

“We know Dain can score,” Underwood said. “Dain has always been a very, very capable scorer. But his presence, his physicality — we’re not here or not winning a Big Ten championship without him. … Just the simple things that he’s doing. They’re not all post-ups. They’re rim runs, they’re offensive rebounds. That’s doing what we ask. That’s being extremely coachable.”

Illinois leads the all-time series with Duquesne 2-1, including a 74-68 victory in March 1952 in an NCAA Mideast Regional second-round game played in Chicago.

–Field Level Media

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