The first number 1 of the NCAA men’s tournament has fallen. March Madness braces were blown coast to coast and in countries around the world when the Illinois Fighting Illinois lost 71-58 to the Loyola Chicago Ramblers on Sunday, removing the Big Ten tournament champions and a popular Final Four pick off the field.
Thirty-four of ESPN’s 38 college basketball experts had selected Illinois to represent the Midwest in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3, and its loss leaves the runner-up Houston Cougars the top team in the area.
But Sunday’s result also raises the profile and opportunities for Loyola, who reached the Final Four in San Antonio in 2018 and may have rediscovered her magic (with team chaplain Sister Jean, the face of the program, watching). The team of college basketball writers at ESPN.com pondered the reasons and significance of the Illinois loss, predicting how far the hikers can go and whether we will see the Illinois back on the # 1 starting line soon. Follow this link for NCAA tournament betting times and visit here Check out your March Madness brace.
What did Illinois sink in its loss to Loyola Chicago?
Loyola Chicago set up a clinic on either end of the floor. The ball-screen heavy offensive in Illinois had very little wiggle room as Loyola dropped a big shot in the lane, forcing the Illinois into contested mid-range drivers – and the lane looked clogged when Ayo Dosunmu or Andre Curbelo tried things out to get going The jump goes to the edge. Dosunmu was cleared for a ride to the basket maybe twice, and one had miscommunication through Loyola’s defense, while Curbelo had some sales issues when trying to create a spark in the second half.
Illinois also missed a couple of open 3s that would have forced Loyola to build on his defense, and Kofi Cockburn struggled to finish early as Loyola increased his lead. Dosunmu, arguably the best offensive guard in the country, had nine points out of ten shots and six turnovers. In other words, it all went wrong.
On the other end, Illinois allowed Loyola to let his offensive go too easily. The Fighting Illinois rarely put pressure on themselves or expanded their defenses before half-court, and never peeled off trying to throw Porter Moser’s team off the beaten track. And of course Cameron Krutwig. He was a wizard on Sunday. Cockburn couldn’t really deal with Krutwig’s cunning and overtaking ability. Krutwig ended up with 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists and was the best player on the floor. Moser also deserves a lot of credit. Loyola was clinical when it had to be. The Ramblers never got stuck – it was a tremendous feat by the Valley Champions.
– Jeff Borzello
What does the Big Ten’s performance so far in this tournament say about the quality of the league? Something?
We discuss this question every year in college football playoffs with the Big Ten, who haven’t won a national title since the 2014 season (Ohio State). In the closing stages of the season, it’s always evident that the Big Ten have the soccer talent to compete with most of the field but keep falling short against real national title contenders. I don’t think that’s any different in the Big Ten in men’s basketball.
There isn’t enough high-level talent in the league. At least not consistently. That means you can put together great teams, but you’ll go 20 years (Michigan State won the last national Big Ten title in 2000) without cutting the nets. The Big Ten have produced 12 picks for the first round since the 2016 NBA draft, according to RealGM. In the 2020 NBA draft alone, six SEC players and a total of twelve were selected in the first round.
The Big Ten has been the regular season standard in college basketball for the past few years, and several teams have played on the Final Fours since the Michigan State run in 2000. Without a more fertile pipeline, however, the league will continue to battle ambitious players, seasoned underdogs with a similar talent pool in the postseason. The state of Ohio needed more talent against Oral Roberts. Purdue needed someone like Carsen Edwards against North Texas. And the gap between an Illinois team with two NBA candidates and a Loyola Chicago roster led by mid-major star Cameron Krutwig wasn’t as big as it appeared on paper.
Without a national title this season – or at least a run to the Final Four – it will be tough for the Big Ten to shake the idea that it’s one of America’s best leagues in the regular season, but not when it’s in the season counts post-season.
– Myron Medcalf
What are the historical effects of the loss of Illinois? Where does this place on the list of disappointments for Illinois fans?
The Fighting Illinois operate with a regularity that can only be mapped by Stonehenge. Every 16 years, it is said, the program produces a team that can fight for a national title. In 1989 it was the “Flying Illinois” with Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle. That dream died in the Final Four courtesy of a Sean Higgins basket for Michigan. Then, in 2005, Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Company narrowly faced North Carolina in the national title game. 16 years later we are back.
However, this “16 year” theory leaves out a top team in 2001 under new head coach Bill Self. This team had to play against an unusually strong number 2 in the form of Arizona in the Elite Eight and lose against them. The loss to Loyola Chicago feels more like a loss 20 years ago. The hikers may have been seeded incorrectly as shocked and grumpy Illinois fans tweeted angrily in the first half. Losing in the round of 16 is a new twist, but Porter Moser’s group were clearly the superior team. The defeat adds to the fact that the Ramblers are the only program in the state of Illinois to ever win a national title (1963). Illinois fans will have to wait patiently for 2037 or maybe a better day sooner.
– John Gasaway
In her most recent interview with the SportsCenter, Sister Jean specifically noted that the Ramblers had the defense to beat Illinois. And when they do, there is nobody on that piece of paper [her bracket] that they can’t beat. “The rest of the Midwest Regional should be scared. Very scared.
More specifically, hikers will now face either the state of Oregon or the state of Oklahoma in Sweet 16. Loyola, the # 8 seed, would be preferred over the # 12 beaver. Who should say against the state of Oklahoma that the hikers couldn’t suffocate Cade Cunningham the way they handcuffed Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu?
In addition, Sister Jean Loyola has eight in her elite. Who should we argue with?
– Joe Lunardi
What is Loyola Chicago’s blanket? Can the hikers make their second Final Four trip in four years?
Loyola has just beaten an opponent who is ranked 2nd by both AP and KenPom. The Ramblers thoroughly outperformed Illinois from the first minute of the game and were clearly the superior team. Porter Moser’s group is therefore in clear danger of reaching the Final Four for the second time in three tournaments. The win against the Umgebung has shown how this team can perform excellently both on the defensive (first half) and on the offensive (second half). On the offensive, Cameron Krutwig creates big problems with his post-moves and especially with his death. At 6-foot-9, he’s able to pull the ball on the open ground from an All-American guard like Ayo Dosunmu. The country should prepare for more Sister Jean because this team has what it takes to make it into April.
– John Gasaway
Who do we expect back for Illinois – will the Illinois one-seed potential again in 2021-22?
In theory, anyone can return, so there is the potential to run back. But it is highly unlikely. Dosunmu is a planned pick for the first round of this year’s NBA draft, while Cockburn added his name to the draft pool last year before returning to Champaign. Both could move into the pro ranks this spring. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are seniors who might decide their college careers are coming to an end. Compared to last season when Brad Underwood brought in impact guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, the Fightinglassung doesn’t bring an invited recruiting class. Luke Goode and Ramses Melendez are solid strikers who should be rotation players but are unlikely to change the game in their first year.
Miller and Curbelo showed a flash of their potential this season, and the team is expected to go through the Freshman Guards next season. Miller was a ball-dominant high school level security guard, and a boundary line picked for college in the first round should have no problem becoming a go-to-guy. Curbelo has shown several times this season that he has a ball-in-hand spark that not many players have. It could be one of the most important backyards in college basketball. Still, I don’t see the Illinois in the 1-seed conversation again, except for surprising decisions by Dosunmu and Cockburn.
– Jeff Borzello