Mark Gonzales: Expectations or not, Loyola and Illinois are where they belong

  • Illinois coach Brad Underwood says there are "no excuses" heading into the NCAA Tournament's South Region.

    Illinois coach Brad Underwood says there are "no excuses" heading into the NCAA Tournament's South Region. Associated Press

  • Loyola coach Drew Valentine has his team back in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

    Loyola coach Drew Valentine has his team back in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Associated Press

  • Illinois' Kofi Cockburn -- here boxing out Iowa's Kris Murray in the March 6 game in Champaign -- could be heading to the NBA.

    Illinois' Kofi Cockburn -- here boxing out Iowa's Kris Murray in the March 6 game in Champaign -- could be heading to the NBA. Associated Press

 
Updated 3/16/2022 5:38 PM

The sheer appearance of Loyola in the NCAA's men's basketball tournament turns heads, based on the Ramblers' run to the Final Four in 2018 and their upset of top regional seed Illinois in the second round of the 2021 tournament.

But Illinois coach Brad Underwood, who survived the loss of All-American Ayo Dosunmu to win the Big Ten title before losing to Indiana in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, placed high standards on his Illini as a fourth seed in the South Region.

 

"There's no excuses this time of year," Underwood said Monday night on his weekly radio show.

The expectations are greater for Illinois and All-American center Kofi Cockburn than they are for Loyola, which won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to secure an NCAA berth in its final season in the conference.

Under the direction of Underwood, Illini has experienced a rebirth during his four seasons. That has only fueled the expectations of Illini alums and fans yearning for a deep run.

Winning first- and second-round games would give Illinois a rematch with top-seeded Arizona, which earned a 83-79 victory Dec. 11 at the State Farm Center.

That was one of 11 games missed by high-energy guard Andre Curbelo, whose experience and savvy play will help the Illini Friday against Tennessee Chattanooga.

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Meanwhile, Loyola's run to the NCAA Tournament is barely short of amazing. The Ramblers learned to adjust without four-year versatile center Cam Krutwig and suffered some growing pains in losses to Michigan State and Auburn in November, and an overtime loss at Northern Iowa in the regular season finale dropped the Ramblers to a fourth seed in the MVC Tournament.

But unlike many of the regular season games late in the season, Loyola seized early leads in the tournament and didn't let up. First-year coach Drew Valentine substituted and used his personnel wisely down the stretch.

And the entire roster meshed well without a formidable player like Krutwig, as guard Lucas Williamson earned first-team MVC honors and played tight defense.

Given the recent successes of both programs, there's an understandable temptation to look to the future. When Underwood arrived in Champaign in 2017, he immediately put his stamp on the program by running off players he deemed weren't a fit for his blueprint.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Former assistants Orlando Antigua and Ron Coleman provided a blend of high-level recruiting and teaching that helped Underwood crystallize his schemes in three years.

Antigua and Coleman left last spring for Kentucky, but the Illini possess a top 20 recruiting class. Even with the transfer of 6-foot-9 Dain Dainja from Baylor, another post player would alleviate concerns about the likely departure of Cockburn to the NBA, as well as the impending departure of guards Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer.

Loyola asked for and received a challenge next season, as it will play in the Atlantic-10 Conference. The Ramblers, with the help of Sister Jean and their Final Four run, have steadily built their profile that should enable them to widen their recruiting pool to the East Coast.

Dayton, which posted a 23-10 record with 11 freshmen and redshirt freshmen, and conference tournament champion Richmond await the arrival of the Ramblers.

The conference's profile was enhanced in 2014 by the addition of Davidson and legendary coach Bob McKillop. McKillop, 71, led the Wildcats to the A-10 regular season title and an NCAA Tournament birth.

His motion offense creates nightmares for opponents, and it enhanced the talents of future NBA superstar Stephen Curry.

Coincidentally, Loyola was scheduled to visit Davidson in December, but the game was postponed because of numerous positive COVID tests on the Ramblers' roster.

If you're looking for an Illinois-Loyola rematch, both teams would need to win three games to reach the South Region finals in San Antonio.

For now, the Ramblers will need to find a way to stop Ohio State's versatile forward E.J. Liddell in Friday's first round game at Pittsburgh.

"Especially with this being my last year, this is exactly where we wanted to be," Williamson told reporters Sunday after learning of the Ramblers' first-round assignment.

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