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.
Cameron 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.
The interior dominance of massive center Kofi Cockburn kept Illinois in striking distance, but the Illini guards never provided enough help. It was fitting that Krutwig snuffed out Illinois’ last-gasp comeback bid by stripping Ayo Dosunmu just outside the 3-point arc with the Illini down eight and just over a minute to play.
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 Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi 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 led by as many as 14 late in the first half.
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 viciou 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 top-seeded Illini at bay. The margin stayed between six and 13 until the final buzzer sounded.
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