There’s a Final Four contender from the state of Illinois moving on to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.
It just isn’t the one most would have predicted.
In a highly anticipated second-round battle between the Land of Lincoln’s flagship school and its most successful mid-major basketball program, Loyola Chicago emerged with a convincing 71-58 victory over top-seeded Illinois. This was no fluky aberration either as the eighth-seeded Ramblers never trailed and led by six or more for the game’s final 26-plus minutes.
Loyola’s victory adds to the mountain of evidence that this Ramblers team is better than the 32-win squad that made an improbable Final Four run three years ago. That team notched its first three NCAA tournament victories by a total of four points. This one has mowed through the champions of the ACC and Big Ten tournaments with startling ease.
"The guys believe," Loyola coach Porter Moser said. "I’ve said this before as the coach of Loyola. It’s amazing what happens when you have a group of guys who believe."
Disciplined man-to-man defense has been Loyola’s signature all season and it was once again the key to Sunday’s victory. The Ramblers stifled Illinois’ lethal transition attack, disrupted the Illini’s pick-and-roll game with their aggressiveness and harassed the Big Ten runner-ups into turning the ball over 17 times.
The interior dominance of massive center Kofi Cockburn kept Illinois from being blown out, but the vaunted Illini backcourt provided little help. First-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu had more turnovers (6) than baskets (4). It was fitting Illinois’ last-gasp comeback bid essentially ended with Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig stripping Dosunmu of the ball just outside the 3-point arc with the Illini down eight and just over a minute to play.
“We’ve been working our whole season for this, working our whole season on our defense,” Krutwig said. “I guess people kind of forgot or something, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year. I guess people chalk it up to being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, we play the right way and we follow the scout, we follow the scheme.”
Illinois becomes the first No. 1 seed eliminated from this upset-heavy NCAA tournament. Loyola advances to its second Sweet 16 in four years, where either fourth-seeded Oklahoma State or 12th-seeded Oregon State will await the Ramblers.
While Illinois and Loyola Chicago are separated by less than 150 miles, it wasn’t just geographic proximity that made this maybe the NCAA tournament’s most intriguing second-round matchup. These were two outstanding, evenly matched teams despite the gulf in resources and recruiting pedigree on both their rosters.
Maddeningly inconsistent early in the season, Illinois roared to life over the last two months as complementary scorers emerged to support All-American candidates Dosunmu and Cockburn. The Illini won 14 of their last 15 games entering the NCAA tournament to earn their program’s first No. 1 seed since 2005.
Loyola lacked marquee wins because of the conference it plays in, but the Ramblers were a season-long fixture in the top 10 of efficiency rankings. They swept the regular season and tournament titles in the multi-bid Missouri Valley Conference, relying on a balanced offense and one of college basketball’s most smothering, disciplined defenses.
When the NCAA tournament selection committee awarded Loyola a No. 8 seed a week ago, critics argued that was a disservice to both the Ramblers and their opponents. They wondered how a team ranked ninth in KenPom and 10th in the NCAA’s NET rankings could land 30th overall on the selection committee’s seed list.
Loyola looked nothing like a No. 8 seed from the outset, jumping to leads of 9-2 and 19-9. The Ramblers increased their lead to as many as 14 late in the first half on a Keith Clemons 3-pointer.
Thoroughly outplayed in every way for the game’s first 19 minutes, Illinois showed a pulse in the final minute of the first half. Andre Curbelo slipped past his man off the dribble, forced Krutwig to help and found Cockburn for a vicious two-handed slam through contact. Curbelo and Cockburn struck again on Illinois’ next possession, the 7-footer rolling hard to the rim after setting a ball screen and the freshman guard finding him once more for an alley-oop slam.
The flurry only trimmed Loyola’s 14-point lead to nine entering halftime. And yet it felt significant for Illinois to be within single digits after a first half in which the Illini committed nine turnovers and seldom generated open shots.
Turned out it wasn’t.
Loyola stifled every Illinois run in the second half, keeping the margin between six and 13. The Illini never mounted much of a run in part because they couldn't get enough stops.
Krutwig, the most prominent holdover from Loyola’s unlikely 2018 Final Four team, spearheaded Sunday’ upset, scoring 19 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists. The skilled big man played the role of point center to perfection, orchestrating an efficient motion offense that carved up the more talented Illini for open jump shots and easy layups.
On Sunday afternoon, once Loyola's celebration was over, Krutwig was asked how this win compared to the narrow victories that propelled the Ramblers to the Final Four during his freshman season. Krutwig acknowledged that the obstacles COVID-19 has presented this season elevated this run to the top of his list.
"Last May, it was pretty dark, pretty bleak," he said. "We didn't even know if we'd have a season. So that Final Four run will hold a special place in my heart obviously, but this one feels more special in the moment."
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