Before No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago even took the floor against No. 1 seed Illinois on Sunday, Ramblers team chaplain Sister Jean offered up a prayer on behalf of the team. The 101-year-old had two simple requests ahead of her pregame ritual, which read half like a nun and half like an assistant coach.
"As we play the Fighting Illini, we ask for special help to overcome this team and get a great win," she said, according to an excerpt shared on the telecast. "We hope to score early and make our opponents nervous. We have a great opportunity to convert rebounds as this team makes about 50% of layups and 30% of its 3 points. Our defense can take care of that."
By halftime, half of that prayer was answered. A seven-point underdog, Loyola led by nine. By game's end, the other half was answered as the Ramblers stunned the Illlini 71-58, making Illinois the first No. 1 seed to bow out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
What the Ramblers accomplished against Illinois, a team many -- including 18% of entries in the CBS Sports Bracket Challenge, the second most-popular pick behind Gonzaga with 39%-- picked to win the national title was no fluke. They went wire-to-wire with the lead and played with confidence and poise down the stretch, suffocating the Illini and their top-10 offense and going right at 7-footer Kofi Cockburn when they had the ball by filtering its action through Cameron Krutwig.
Krutwig, who was a key piece to Loyola's famous Final Four team in 2018, finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists as he went toe-to-toe with the All-Big Ten big man. Cockburn finished the game with 21 points and nine rebounds, but he struggled with Krutwig's nifty post moves and passing throughout the game. Compounding matters, All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu never found his groove either as he finished the game 4-of-10 shooting for nine points, three assists and six turnovers.
This marks the fifth time Loyola has advanced to the Sweet 16 in program history but the second time in the last three full seasons it has done so under rising coach Porter Moser, who will no doubt be a hot commodity when the coaching carousel spins this offseason. In 2018, the Ramblers as an 11 seed advanced to their second Final Four in program history by topping 6, 3, 7 and 9 seeds before falling to eventual runner-up Michigan.
Here are a few key takeaways.
1. Illinois got a tough draw
Seeding mid-major teams in any year is a challenge; seeding mid-major teams in a pandemic, when games are canceled and postponed left and right at every level, leaving every resume with caveats and considerations, is especially hard. But Loyola Chicago getting a No. 8 seed made it easily one of the worst-seeded teams in the bracket.
Everyone knew this. The Ramblers ranked 10th in the NET (the NCAA selection committee's own tool), ninth at KenPom and won 17 of its final 18 games to enter March Madness.
A No. 8 seed didn't appropriately capture their resume nor their sterling metrics. Did it have a ton of great wins? No. But by underseeding them based on almost every relevant metric and tool, the committee did a disservice to Loyola and to Illinois. It stuck Loyola with a first-round game against a red-hot ninth-seeded Georgia Tech, then with a second-round game against a No. 1 seed Illini team. And, most critically, it stuck Illinois -- the third overall team in the committee's rankings -- with a second-round showdown against a team good enough to be 4/5 seed quality.
You have to beat the best teams to advance, so even if Loyola got a worse seed than it deserved by four or five spots, Illinois still needs to handle its business to win the championship. But still, let's acknowledge here that nobody really wins in this situation (even if Loyola is celebrating right now).
2. Give Loyola's defense credit
This Illinois team blasted teams in Big Ten play to within inches of winning the conference's regular season title. It ranked top-10 nationally, led by two stars in Dosunmu and Cockburn. And it thrived on experienced playmakers who could rise in big moments. But Loyola just played with no fear and rose above what the Illini had done all season, forcing 17 turnovers, limiting Dosunmu to 4-of-10 shooting and effectively taking away one of the best closers in college hoops.
"We've been working our whole season on our defense," Krutwig said. "I guess people kinda forget, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year. People chalk it up to us being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, we play the right way, we follow the scout, follow the scheme."
3. This is no ordinary Cinderella
Buoyed by the No. 1 defense in adjusted efficiency in the country and an upperclassmen-heavy roster that closed the season comfortably inside the AP Top 25 rankings, this eighth-seeded Loyola team is a Cinderella story in seed-line only.
"The guys believed. This wasn't something where the switches just flipped these last 48 hours," Moser said. "It means a lot for Loyola where we were to where we are now, and we're not done."
The Ramblers will face the winner of No. 4 seed Oklahoma State and No. 12 seed Oregon State in the Sweet 16 for a chance to advance to their third-ever Elite Eight.