After skating past the Georgia Institute of Technology in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the No. 8-seeded Loyola men’s basketball team (24-5, 16-2) will now take on No. 1-seeded University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (24-6, 16-4) at 11:10 a.m. CT March 21. This is the second time the Ramblers and the Fighting Illini are meeting in the NCAA Tournament, and the 16th time they’re playing each other overall.
The two teams have a storied past, as Loyola beat Illinois 79-64 in an NCAA Regional Final March 16, 1963 to advance to the Final Four. The 1963 team eventually went on to win the entire tournament. The most recent time the two teams faced off was Loyola head coach Porter Moser’s first game as coach for the Ramblers in 2011.
Illinois is the favorite in the second round matchup as it’s the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. The Fighting Illini won the Big 10 Tournament to get them the automatic bid. They carry an eight-game winning streak into the March 21 game.
Top-seeded Illinois is led by junior guard Ayo Dusunmo, averaging 20.6 points per game this season. In the first round March 19, Dusunmo totaled 17 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in a 78-49 victory over Drexel University.
“[Underwood] puts you in a pick your poison situation,” Moser said. “Are you going to watch the roll with Kofi [Cockburn] or bottle up with Ayo? … They’ll space you.”
Joining Dosunmu as an All-American player, Illinois sophomore center Cockburn could give Loyola a challenge, according to Moser. The 7-foot-tall big man averages 17.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, while connecting on 65.7 percent of his field goal attempts.
Cockburn has the third most double-doubles in all of Division I basketball, tallying 16 this season.
“He is very hard because the moment he catches it, he’s making his move,” Moser said. “He carves out space and he shows his numbers. … He’s going to make his move and he’s elite at it.”
Dosunmu has connections to Loyola senior guard Lucas Williamson. The pair both grew up in Chicago and played basketball as kids together. Williamson led Loyola in its first round victory over Georgia Tech with 21 points.
Serving as the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Defensive Player of the Year, Williamson is also Loyola’s second leading scorer. He’s been a crucial element to the Rambler defense — which ranks first in points allowed in all of Division I basketball.
Loyola only allows 55.5 points per game, something Underwood and Dosunmu brought up many times in the March 20 press conference.
“They do a great job of playing with high hands,” Underwood said. “They make passing difficult at times because of their hands. They’re well-schooled and they just don’t make a lot of mistakes. Combine that with their tempo on offense and that’s how you get a team that doesn’t give up a lot of points.”
The Fighting Illini also mentioned Loyola’s senior center Cameron Krutwig as a focal point in their preparation for the March 21 game.
Dosunmu said Illinois is focused on not allowing Krutwig to pick apart the Fighting Illini with his passing ability and limiting Loyola’s threes.
In the last three outings, the 2021 MVC Player of the Year has contributed 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Krutwig serves as a “point center” and many of Loyola’s offensive plays run through him.
“He’s a unique guy that they run offensive through,” Underwood said. “He might have one of the best floaters in college basketball. … He’s an excellent passer, he sees the game at a pace that is very slow and sees things ahead from that standpoint but he’s a very capable scorer. I’m a big fan. … I think he’s the head of the snake for them.”
While Loyola is on a seven-game winning streak, having won 18 of its last 19 games, Moser admitted the upcoming game will be a “great challenge.”
This is the first time since 2007 that two institutions from the state of Illinois are competing in March Madness. With eyes on the Illinois and Loyola match-up, Moser said it’s a testament to how good basketball is in the state.
“They’re the hottest team in the country,” Moser said. “Being from Illinois, to have two ranked teams go at it to get to the Sweet Sixteen is great for the state. … It’s great for basketball.”
The game is scheduled for March 21 at 11:10 CT and will be broadcast on CBS.