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TCR Staff Predictions: No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 8 Loyola Chicago

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Will the Illini ramble on?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drexel at Illinois Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Cohn: Illinois 73, Loyola 61

When the Ramblers were marching toward the Final Four three years ago, I was as big of a Loyola fan as anyone. I wanted to taste March Madness so badly while I was still in school that I forced my TCR staff to write Loyola-related content as we rebranded as The Rambler Room.

My, how those days are behind us.

I don’t think any win on Friday was as impressive as Illinois’ demolition of Drexel, even if No. 2 Houston beat No. 15 Cleveland State by more points. Take away the opening minute jitters, and the team we saw taking care of business over the final three weeks of the regular season was the exact same one that showed up in Indy. Yes, Loyola will try to wear down the Illini, but I think this Illinois team can play with anyone — and I think everyone opponent is fearful of Ayo and Kofi. Give me the Illini by a dozen.

Tristen Kissack: Illinois 75, Loyola 66

These are starting to get interesting now, eh?

I actually had the Yellow Jackets advancing to play the Illini in the Round of 32. If they had Moses Wright, they probably would’ve. But I digress.

Illinois did exactly what it was supposed to do to Drexel on Friday which is an encouraging sign. The Illini are the hottest team in the country right now and everyone is truly firing on all cylinders. This group at its best might just be the No. 1 team in the country.

I think the Illini are just too much for the Ramblers physically in this one. Our guards are quicker, stronger, more athletic. Plus, Ayo > anyone else in Loyola’s backcourt. Cameron Krutweig has been great for them all year long. He’s a perfect mid-major big. Smart, fundamental and imposing. But this isn’t the MVC anymore, and Kofi Cockburn is the biggest dude in the country. Kofi is going to take him out of the game on defense, and the Illini will see the Beavs in the Sweet 16.

Michael Berns: Illinois 76, Loyola 61

Illinois and Loyola were very impressive in their opening games versus Drexel and Georgia Tech. Loyola is smart, patient and can get hot from 3, but the Illini just matchup so well against these Ramblers. Kofi dominates the paint, and after a close half, the Illini blow this one open in the uptempo full court game in the second.

Drew Pastorek: Illinois 70, Loyola 60

The fact that these two teams are matched up in the second round still grinds my gears. Loyola being an 8-seed is a disservice to the stellar season the Ramblers have put together. They are a very skilled, fundamentally sound, veteran team and will try to make Illinois play at their pace. Try. Had this game been played in November, December, or January I’d think the Illini could be in serious trouble. But Illinois is just rolling right now.

The Illini have looked and played like championship contenders the past two months. They’ve dispatched inferior opponents and have found ways to win tough games. Ayo, as great as he is, has also been excellent at getting his teammates involved. The Cockburn/Krutwig showdown will certainly be worth watching. Krutwig won’t be afraid to challenge Kofi in the post, but doesn’t have the athleticism or strength to prevent Kofi from getting his.

Selfishly, I will be watching Loyola guard Tate Hall very closely. The transfer from D2 Indianapolis (my alma mater) has emerged as a legit secondary scoring option for the Ramblers.

Don’t be shocked if Loyola keeps things close — they are the top scoring defense in the nation — but I expect Ayo & Co. to do enough to stave off the upset.

Matt Rejc: Illinois 85, Loyola 80 OT

A significant part of the Ramblers’ identity is tied to their defense and ability to wear down opponents. Illinois hasn’t played many teams with that sort of play style, and it’s no doubt going to frustrate the Illini throughout most of the game. I feel like this one will be very close in its entirety and play out in a similar manner to the Big Ten Championship game. But if we’ve learned anything over the past season, it’s that one or more of Ayo, Kofi, Andre Curbelo, or Adam Miller will take over the game at some point and keep Illinois on top.

Quentin Wetzel: Illinois 70, Loyola 62

Loyola is really, really good. Like, the Ramblers are better than whoever Illinois would play in the Sweet Sixteen, and they might even be better than whoever makes the Elite Eight out of the Midwest. This game will be a real test for the Illini. However, I don’t envision Illinois struggling to get stops. The easiest way to beat Illinois’ defense is to have a big man that can shoot threes, but Loyola doesn’t have that. But Illinois might struggle to score at the other end against a Rambler defense that ranks 3rd in the country (per KenPom).

Now, Loyola’s defense is great, but there are two ways to beat it. The first is by beating it down the floor, and we’ll probably see the Illini try to push the pace in this game. Loyola is great at slowing opponents down though (ranking 343rd in adjusted tempo), so there may not be too many transition opportunities. The second is through offensive rebounding. Loyola is actually the third best defensive rebounding team in the country by defensive rebounding percentage, but it’s never played a Kofi Cockburn. And once Kofi gets the ball off a board, it’s nearly impossible to stop him from scoring.

In the end, I think Illinois pulls out the win, but this should be tough. Porter Moser is one of the best coaches in mid-major basketball, and he has an All American center in Cameron Krutwig to back him up. But you know what’s better than one All American? Two All Americans. Ayo Dosunmu makes the difference in this one, and Illinois advances to the second weekend for the first time since 2005.