College basketball fans were holding their breath when the brackets were released, and now their wishes are coming true, as the Illinois Fighting Illini will face the Loyola Ramblers in the NCAA Tournament’s second round on Sunday.
The Illini punched their ticket to the second round with a blowout win over Drexel on Friday, and Loyola followed suit by beating Georgia Tech on Friday evening.
Illinois holds the all-time edge in the series, facing Loyola 15 times since the 1949-50 season. The Illini have won 12 of those 15 games, with the Illini taking the last game between the two schools in 2011.
Illinois has won the last three games in the all-time series.
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The one time the two schools have met in the NCAA Tournament was a memorable occasion for Loyola, as they defeated the Illini in the Elite Eight and eventually won the 1963 men’s basketball championship.
According to ESPN’s Stats and Info, it will mark only the third time in the history of the NCAA Tournament that two teams from Illinois have faced off.
Aside from the obvious historical significance of the game, the Illini and Ramblers both have plenty to play for on Sunday. Illinois, a No. 1 seed in the tournament for the first time since 2005, is trying to get back to the Final Four for the first time since that memorable season, and standing in their way is a team that allowed just 55.5 points per game during the regular season, the lowest total in the nation.
Illinois will test that defensive mightily in several respects, including with their depth that is the envy of teams across America. The Illini had four players score in double figures on Friday against Drexel, and Andre Curbelo has a well-earned reputation as a bench weapon after winning the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
With Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Adam Miller all poised to be deployed on Sunday, and with Da’Monte Williams and Curbelo coming off the bench, the Illini have plenty of firepower with which to answer the challenge of the Ramblers.
Illinois also has one other unique weapon in this matchup: their dominant frontcourt, with both Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili serving as a potent one-two punch that can challenge any defense, much less one that will be facing the size disadvantage that Loyola will be.
Even with those matchups, Loyola still has plenty of areas where they can potentially exploit the Illini. Cameron Krutwig, at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, is an extremely athletic center with great ability to move with the basketball, and he could potentially get Cockburn in foul trouble if the Ramblers are able to get him the ball inside.
The Ramblers can also work the ball to the outside well, with Lucas Williamson coming off of a season-best performance against Georgia Tech, with 21 points and four three-pointers to his credit in the victory.
Add in the strong play of Braden Norris, a slick-dribbling and passing point guard, and the strong rebounding of the Loyola squad as a whole, with 13 offensive rebounds and 30 rebounds overall on Friday, and they pose interesting challenges to Illinois in multiple areas Sunday.
We will soon find out what time the Ramblers and Illini will square off Sunday, along with the network that the two teams will be playing on.