Three years after making a magical journey to the Final Four, Loyola of Chicago is in the midst of another Cinderella run as the eighth-seeded Ramblers upset the No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini 71-58 in the second round of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament Sunday.
With Loyola-Chicago 101-year-old superfan and team chaplain Sister Jean Delores Schmidt looking on from the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the Ramblers made the Illini the first No. 1 seed to be sent packing from this year's tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Loyola-Chicago put its in-state rival in an early hole, surging to a 19-9 lead in the first half and leading by as much as 14 thanks to putting the clamps on Illinois defensively.
The Ramblers shot 51.0 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from beyond the arc while holding the Fighting Illini to 44.9 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from deep.
Loyola-Chicago also forced Illinois into some uncharacteristic mistakes in the upset, as head coach Brad Underwood's team committed 17 turnovers.
Cameron Krutwig, C, LUC: 19 PTS (9/18 FG), 12 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL
Marquise Kennedy, G, LUC: 14 PTS (4/6 FG), 3 REB
Kofi Cockburn, C, ILL: 21 PTS (7/12 FG), 9 REB
Ayo Dosunmu, G, ILL: 9 PTS (4/10 FG), 2 REB, 2 AST
Loyola-Chicago Dominates with Defense, Half-Court Offense
Sunday's game was a battle of polar opposites, as Loyola-Chicago is the No. 1 defensive team in the nation, while Illinois ranked 14th in the country in scoring 81.3 points per game.
Defense won out in a big way, as the Ramblers frustrated Illinois all game long and held Naismith College Player of the Year finalist Ayo Dosunmu to just nine points on 4-of-10 shooting to go along with six turnovers.
SBNation's Ricky O'Donnell marveled at how Loyola-Chicago was able to lock down one of the most talented and explosive teams in college basketball:
Another impressive aspect of Loyola's game Sunday was its ability to turn defense into offense, such as this steal that led to a three on the other end by Braden Norris:
In addition to their defense, the Ramblers controlled the game with their half-court offense, which allowed them to slow the pace and prevent the athletic Illini from getting out and running.
Among the highlights Loyola-Chicago produced out of the half court was this four-point play from Marquise Kennedy:
Also, center Cameron Krutwig picked apart Illinois with some unexpectedly great passing in half-court sets:
Loyola-Chicago essentially dominated the game from start to finish, as Illinois never truly threatened to make a comeback.
The overall numbers favored the Ramblers, which came as no surprise to Sister Jean, as evidenced by her pregame prayer:
Sister Jean was witness to one of the most unexpected runs in NCAA tournament history in 2018, and the Ramblers appear poised for another deep run this year.
The difference this time around is that Loyola-Chicago isn't sneaking up on anyone, but that didn't seem to matter in Sunday's decimation of top-seeded Illinois.
Illinois the Victim of Unfavorable Seeding?
Illinois largely played poorly Sunday and would have lost to many teams in the tournament with similar execution or lack thereof, but it is fair to wonder if the selection committee did the Illini a disservice.
Loyola-Chicago lost just four games this season and dominated the Missouri Valley Conference. It also ranked first in Division I college basketball, allowing just 55.7 points per game.
That gave the Ramblers a No. 9 overall ranking in respected college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Loyola-Chicago and Wisconsin are the only teams in Pomeroy's top 20 that were seeded eighth or worse in the NCAA tournament.
The disparity between the KenPom ranking and the seed led to plenty of chatter Sunday regarding whether the Illini were treated fairly.
Rodger Sherman of The Ringer, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports and ESPN's Scott Van Pelt all criticized the selection committee for Loyola-Chicago's seeding:
The Ramblers may have been a tough team to evaluate given their low level of competition in the MVC, but recent history should have told the committee that a Porter Moser-coached team playing this well was going to be very dangerous.
Illinois learned that the hard way against a team that the KenPom rankings suggest it shouldn't have had to face until the Elite Eight at the earliest.
At the same time, Loyola-Chicago had every reason to complain and get down about having to face KenPom's No. 2 overall team in Illinois so early in the tournament, but the Ramblers played incredible basketball and won instead.
Loyola-Chicago will look to keep its magical run going when it faces the winner of No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon State in the Sweet 16 later this week.