After Illinois took down Ohio State in an overtime thriller to win the Big Ten Championship, earning themselves a banner in a season where they also had a valid claim to the conference’s regular-season title, I was ready to write something about how scary and on fire they look heading into the NCAA Tournament. However! Thanks to the often inscrutable and always controversial decisions made by the tourney’s selection committee, an outsized obstacle suddenly looms over their first weekend of play, threatening this trendy pick with a brief postseason if they’re not careful.
Though the Illini have flown under the radar in 2021 compared to wire-to-wire favorites Gonzaga and Baylor, as well as the out-of-nowhere success story that was Michigan, they do have something over on each of the other No. 1 seeds. They’ve been sharpened by much tougher conference competition than the Zags. They have not stumbled down the stretch like Baylor. And, though 14-3 Michigan earned the outright Big Ten title instead of 16-4 Illinois, Brad Underwood’s team absolutely destroyed the Wolverines in Ann Arbor two weeks ago, and they are also not dealing with a sudden critical injury like the one that felled Isaiah Livers.
Entering what is somehow their first tourney appearance since 2013, Illinois enjoys the incredible luxury of having not one, but two All-America level players. There’s junior forward and possible NBA first-rounder Ayo Dosunmu, one of the country’s most efficient and versatile offensive weapons. He’s a guy who shoots accurately from outside, gets to the foul line regularly, and also finds time to be second in the Big Ten in assists as well as points per game. And he can dunk pretty well, too.
Then there’s the 7-foot sophomore Kofi Cockburn, who fills up the stat sheet with all the rebounding, rim protecting, and inside scoring that a coach dreams of when he recruits a guy of his size. He particularly lit it up against Luka Garza and Iowa at the conference tournament this weekend, outdueling the POY favorite by going off for 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting.
Complementing those two is a fiery little freshman and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year in Andre Curbelo, and a Big Ten All-Defense senior leader in Trent Frazier. So yeah, Illinois might damn well be favorites to win this whole big dance.
But the committee deployed one neat trick that could potentially stop them in their tracks before the first weekend even ends. After presumably beating 16-seeded Drexel in their first game, the Illini will then face off against the winner of the game between the ninth-seeded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the eight-seed Loyola Chicago Ramblers. It’s that second team, in particular, that should be cause for alarm.
Loyola Chicago arrives to this NCAA Tournament as a mid-major with an instantly recognizable brand, owing to their 2018 Cinderella run to the Final Four—and yes, before you ask, Sister Jean is in fact alive and vaccinated at 101 years old, and apparently she’s angling with the NCAA to be allowed into the restricted-capacity games in Indianapolis.
“She didn’t go to St. Louis (for the conference tournament) and she was so mad,” (Loyola head coach Porter) Moser said in an ESPN radio interview. “She said, ‘Porter, I looked them in the eye and said I’m more healthy than you. I have my vaccination. I’ve been tested 30 times.’ She’s on it. I’m just telling you, I’d put my money on she’d be in Indy.”
But more than being a memorable name, Loyola may in fact be one of the more underseeded tournament teams in recent memory. The committee considers 24-4 Loyola to be the eighth-best team in its quadrant of the bracket, but going by CBB guru Ken Pomeroy’s calculations, the Ramblers rate as the ninth-best team in the entire country, while Bart Torvik’s offshoot rankings put them at a still very scary 13th.
The guy you’ll hear about from the minute Loyola’s tournament starts is Cameron Krutwig, the oddball senior center with the harmonica talents and the ugly mustache. Though already a key contributor as a freshman on that 2018 team, the Algonquin, Ill., product is far, far, far and away the most important player on this year’s iteration of the Ramblers, leading the squad in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks. Despite playing in Chicago, Krutwig is not afraid to admit that he likes ketchup on a hot dog, which to me indicates a kind of bold conviction that makes him an intimidating foe. And though his opposition has not featured anyone down low who can compare to the caliber of Cockburn, the dude has still put up numbers in his career that place him in some elite company.
Loyola and Illinois may both have legitimate gripes about the level of competition they’ll be forced to endure to make it to the Sweet 16, but they won’t find much sympathy here, because their bad break is more entertainment for us. Something about the red-hot run that Illinois is currently enjoying plus the big unknowns hovering around Loyola as a mid-major who ‘s built up a strong record against inferior competition makes for about the most enticing second-round matchup that you could dream of, and that’s before you even get into the fact that these are two schools in the same state yet haven’t crossed paths in a decade. Sunday’s possible Illinois-Loyola game has a chance to match 2017’s epic Wichita State-Kentucky showdown as a first-weekend old money vs. new money fight with instant championship implications. Georgia Tech better not ruin it.