The two best teams in the state of Illinois battle it out for a spot in the Sweet 16
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object when the Illinois Fighting Illini take on the Loyola Chicago Ramblers in a game that could decide who wins the Midwest Region. This was a matchup that fans were very much looking forward to when the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed last Sunday. Now this "dream matchup" has become a reality after Illinois dominated Drexel on Friday, while the Ramblers' defense held court in the final minutes of their win over Georgia Tech. Sunday will mark just the 16th all-time meeting between these teams.
The Fighting Illini shot 57 percent from the field and forced 11 turnovers as they cruised to an easy 78-49 win over the Dragons for the program's second-largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game. At one point Illinois led by as much as 33 points. As for the Ramblers, they took advantage of a Yellow Jackets team that was without their best player in Moses Wright. They held Georgia Tech forwards Khalid Moore and Rodney Howard to a combined 10 points and two rebounds, while also overcoming a strong performance from Jose Alvarado, who scored 13 points. Now it'll be Loyola's top-ranked scoring defense against the fast-paced, high octane Illini.
Midwest Region: No. 8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (25-4) vs. No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini (24-6)
Time: Sunday, March 21 at 12:10 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Illinois -7.0
Keys for Loyola Chicago
The Ramblers' frontcourt tandem of center Cameron Krutwig and forward Aher Uguak, combined for 14 points, 10 rebounds, and two steals. They took advantage of the void in Georgia Tech's front line, forcing the Yellow Jackets to rely heavily on their guards. Speaking of guards, Lucas Williamson led all scorers in this game with season-high 21 points. Williamson made 8-of-13 field goals (4-of-7 from 3-point range) for the Ramblers, and his defense helped keep Tech's Jose Alvardo below his average of 15 points per game. Fellow guards Braden Norris (16 points, 4-of-7 3-pointers), and Keith Clemons (12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, steal) also finished in double figures for Porter Moser's team.
They'll need another complete team effort against an Illinois team that has multiple contributors up and down the roster. The Ramblers currently have a three-game losing streak against Big Ten teams, which includes the 2018 Final Four loss to Michigan.
Keys for Illinois
Center Kofi Cockburn (18 points), along with guards Ayo Dosunmu (17), Adam Miller (10), and Trent Frazier (11) all scored in double figures for Illinois against Drexel. Cockburn made 8-of-11 field goals, six of which came in the paint. He also had five rebounds and two blocked shots. Dosunmu had a double-double as he added 11 rebounds to go with his points. He also pitched in six assists and three steals.
Then you have Miller, Frazier, and Jacob Grandison who collectively registered 30 points (13-of-19 total field goals), 11 rebounds, four assists, and two steals. The Illini also got 14 points off the bench thanks to Andre Curbelo (8), Da'Monte Williams (4), and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (2). Loyola's defense will certainly be pushed to the limits in this game. The Ramblers' biggest challenges will be slowing Dosunmu down and limiting the effectiveness of Cockburn. Williamson vs. Dosunmu (who are friends off the court), and Krutwig vs. Cockburn will be fun matchups to watch.
The Illini are 11-4 in their last 15 non-conference games. And this will be their first meeting with a Missouri Valley team since November 2018 (a win over Evansville).
The Illini are 12-3 all-time against the Ramblers and have won the last three games against them (2011, 2001, 1999). Their last loss to Loyola came back in 1986. The Ramblers' defense keeps the game close, but in the end, the Fighting Illini have a little more firepower on their side. Sister Jean forgive me...
Prediction: Illinois 80, Loyola Chicago 75
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.