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Five questions from Illinois’ March Madness upset loss to Loyola Chicago

The NCAA men’s tournament’s first No. 1 seed has fallen. March Madness brackets were busted from coast to coast and in nations worldwide when the Illinois Fighting Illini lost to the Loyola Chicago Ramblers 71-58 on Sunday, removing the Big Ten tournament champions and a popular Final Four pick from the field.

Thirty-four of ESPN’s 38 college basketball experts had picked Illinois to represent the Midwest in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3, and its loss leaves the second-seeded Houston Cougars as the top team standing in the region.

But Sunday’s result also raises the profile and possibilities for Loyola, which reached the Final Four in San Antonio back in 2018 and may have rediscovered its magic (with team chaplain Sister Jean, the face of the program, looking on). ESPN.com’s team of college basketball writers reflected on the reasons for and meaning of the Illinois loss, projecting how far the Ramblers can go and whether we’ll see the Illini back on the No. 1 seed line anytime soon. Follow this link for NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your March Madness bracket.

What sunk Illinois in its loss to Loyola Chicago?

Loyola Chicago put on a clinic at both ends of the floor. Illinois’ ball-screen-heavy offense had very little room to operate because Loyola dropped a big into the lane and forced the Illini to take contested midrange shots — and the lane looked clogged whenever Ayo Dosunmu or Andre Curbelo tried to make things happen off the bounce going to the rim. Dosunmu got free for a drive to the basket maybe twice, and one was on a miscommunication by Loyola’s defense, while Curbelo had some turnover problems when he was looking to create a spark in the second half.

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Illinois also missed a few open 3s that would have forced Loyola to extend its defense, and Kofi Cockburn struggled to finish early when Loyola was stretching its lead. Dosunmu, arguably the best offensive guard in the country, had nine points on 10 shots and six turnovers. In other words, it all went wrong.

At the other end, Illinois allowed Loyola to run its offense too easily. The Fighting Illini rarely pressured full-court or extended their half-court defense and never went small to try to take Porter Moser’s team out of rhythm. And of course, Cameron Krutwig. He was a magician on Sunday. Cockburn couldn’t really handle Krutwig’s craftiness and passing ability. Krutwig finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists and was the best player on the floor. A lot of credit goes to Moser, too. Coming out of timeouts, Loyola was clinical when it needed to be. The Ramblers never trailed — it was a tremendous performance by the Valley champs.

— Jeff Borzello

What does the Big Ten’s performance in this tournament to date say about the quality of the league? Anything?

We debate this same question every year in the College Football Playoff with the Big Ten, which hasn’t won a national title since the 2014 season (Ohio State). It’s always obvious, in the final stages of the season, that the Big Ten has the football talent to compete with the bulk of the field but consistently falls short against true national title contenders. I don’t think that’s any different in the Big Ten with men’s basketball.

There isn’t enough high-level talent in the league. Not consistently, at least. That means you can put together great teams, but you’ll go 20 years (Michigan State won the Big Ten’s most recent national title in 2000) without cutting down the nets. The Big Ten, per RealGM, has produced 12 first-round picks since the 2016 NBA draft. In the 2020 NBA draft alone, six SEC players were selected in the first round, and 12 overall.

The Big Ten has been the regular-season standard in college basketball in recent years, and multiple teams have played in Final Fours since Michigan State’s run in 2000. But without a more fruitful pipeline, the league will continue to find itself in battles against ambitious, experienced underdogs who boast a similar talent pool in the postseason. Ohio State needed more talent down the stretch against Oral Roberts. Purdue needed someone like Carsen Edwards against North Texas. And the gap between an Illinois team with a pair of NBA prospects and a Loyola-Chicago squad led by mid-major star Cameron Krutwig was not as wide as it appeared to be on paper.

Without a national title this season — or at least a run to the Final Four — it will be difficult 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 counts in the postseason.

— Myron Medcalf

What are the historical implications of Illinois’ loss? Where does this rank on the list of disappointments for Illini fans?

The Fighting Illini operate with a regularity that can only be charted by Stonehenge. Every 16 years, it is said, the program produces a team that can contend for a national title. In 1989, it was the “Flying Illini,” with Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle. That dream died at the Final Four courtesy of a Sean Higgins basket for Michigan. Then, in 2005, Dee Brown, Deron Williams and company came up just short against North Carolina in the national title game. Here we are again, 16 years after that.

This “16-year” theory, however, conveniently leaves out a top-seeded team in 2001 under new head coach Bill Self. That team had to play, and lose to, one uncommonly strong No. 2 seed in the form of Arizona in the Elite Eight. Losing to Loyola Chicago feels more like that defeat 20 years ago. The Ramblers were perhaps mis-seeded, as shocked and morose Illini fans were already rage-tweeting in the first half. Losing as early as the round of the 32 is a new twist, but Porter Moser’s group was clearly the superior team. The defeat reinforces the fact that the Ramblers are the only program in the state of Illinois ever to win a national title (1963). Illinois fans are left to wait patiently for 2037 or, perhaps, a better day sooner than that.

— John Gasaway

In her recent SportsCenter interview, Sister Jean noted specifically that the Ramblers’ “had the defense to beat Illinois. And if they do that, there isn’t anyone on this piece of paper [her bracket] that they can’t beat.” The rest of the Midwest Regional should be afraid. Very afraid.

More to the point, the Ramblers will now face either Oregon State or Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16. Loyola, the No. 8 seed, would be favored against the No. 12 Beavers. Against Oklahoma State, who’s to say the Ramblers couldn’t stifle Cade Cunningham the same way they put handcuffs on Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu?

Besides, Sister Jean has Loyola in her Elite Eight. Who are we to argue?

— Joe Lunardi

What’s Loyola Chicago’s ceiling? Can the Ramblers make their second Final Four trip in four years?

Loyola just beat an opponent ranked No. 2 by both the AP and KenPom. The Ramblers thoroughly outplayed Illinois from the first minute of the game and was clearly the superior team. Porter Moser’s group is therefore a clear threat to reach the Final Four for the second time in three tournaments. The win against the Illini displayed how this team can excel at both the defensive (first half) and offensive (second) ends. Cameron Krutwig creates major problems on offense with his post moves and, especially, his passing. At 6-foot-9, he is capable of stripping the ball in the open floor from an All-American guard like Ayo Dosunmu. The country should prepare for more Sister Jean, because this team has what it takes to reach April.

— John Gasaway

Who do we expect back for Illinois — are the Illini going to have 1-seed potential again in 2021-22?

Everyone can theoretically return, so the potential to run it back is there. But it’s highly unlikely. Dosunmu is a projected first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, while Cockburn also put his name into the draft pool last year before returning to Champaign. Both could leave for the pro ranks this spring. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are seniors who could decide their college careers have come to an end. Compared to last season, when Brad Underwood brought in impact guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, the Fighting Illini aren’t bringing in a loaded recruiting class. Luke Goode and Ramses Melendez are solid forwards who should be rotation players, but they’re unlikely to be game-changers in Year 1.

Miller and Curbelo showed flashes this season of their potential, and the expectation is that the team will run through the freshman guards next season. Miller was a ball-dominant guard at the high school level, and a borderline projected first-round pick entering college, so he shouldn’t have an issue becoming a go-to-guy. Curbelo showed several times this season he has a spark with the ball in his hands that not many players possess. It could be one of the premier backcourts in college basketball. That said, I don’t see the Illini being back in the 1-seed conversation barring surprising decisions from Dosunmu and Cockburn.

— Jeff Borzello

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