On Illinois vs. Loyola not happening again and other guarantees about which we have no idea

What do we ever really know as we plunge straight into the deep end of another March Madness?

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Loyola Chicago v Illinois

Sorry, but more of this — another Illinois-Loyola NCAA Tournament clash — isn’t in the cards.

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

You think Illinois fans were salty after the top-seeded Illini lost to Loyola a year ago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament? Just wait until the Illini are upset again by the Ramblers a little less than two weeks from now in San Antonio with a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans on the line.

But seriously, folks.

It’s not going to happen. Not this time. (Or is it?)

It would be shocking and then some to see the Illini and Ramblers — the Nos. 4 and 10 seeds in the South Region, with games Friday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh — reach the Elite Eight. Besides, if they did, one has to figure it would be the more-talented Illini’s turn to win. But as you fill out your brackets in the coming days, you might want to check yourself before you scribble the names of both schools past the Steel City and into the Sweet 16.

For the record, I have Illinois getting past Chattanooga and UAB before getting beaten — for the second time this season — by top-seeded Arizona. And I have Loyola toppling Ohio State before meeting its demise against second-seeded Villanova.

Then again — and this is a key point — what the hell do I know?

What do we ever know as we plunge straight into the deep end of another March Madness?

The conference tournaments were a flurry of reminders of how the college postseason on the whole never goes remotely according to script. Look no further than Iowa beating Purdue for the Big Ten title two days after regular-season co-champs Illinois and Wisconsin were kicked to the curb. Baylor, the Big 12’s highest-ranked team, was a quarterfinal loser. So was Auburn, the SEC’s first-place finisher. And did you see Virginia Tech come out of nowhere to dominate mighty Duke and steal what was supposed to be victory-lapping Mike Krzyzewski’s final ACC title?

“Our kids fought like crazy and played hard,” the old coach said, “but an older team handles [being] tired better.”

And that — the whole tiredness thing — is another matter we can mostly just guess at. There’s a pretty popular school of thought that skedaddling early from a conference tournament is actually a good thing; it preserves bodies and minds for the Big Dance. Illinois’ Brad Underwood says his 2021 team, which won the Big Ten tournament, was “exhausted” when it ran into Loyola. As it faded against Virginia Tech, Duke sure looked like a team that had already smashed into the proverbial wall.

So, hey, good luck to Iowa and Purdue and likewise to Tennessee, which also played Sunday. Good luck to Arizona and UCLA, whose Saturday-night Pac-12 final was enormously intense. Good luck to Villanova, which had to dig extra-deep to close out a back-alley brawl of a Big East tournament. We’ll just have to wonder which of these teams are all out of juice.

A graphic during the Big Ten title-game telecast showed the NCAA fates of the last five tournament winners. There was a first-round loser (Michigan State in 2016), a second-round loser (Illinois in 2021), a Sweet 16 loser (Michigan in 2017), a semifinal loser (Michigan State in 2019) and a national runner-up (Michigan in 2018). I looked at the graphic and wondered: Are we supposed to be learning something from this?

In other words, pretty much anything can happen from here. Gosh, that’s what makes it so much fun.

Pitt stoppers

Illinois’ and Loyola’s watch-party reactions on Selection Sunday were as different as it gets, which is interesting.

Up in Rogers Park, the Ramblers sat on a dais on the floor at Gentile Arena, with coach Drew Valentine right in the middle. When their name was called, the crowd cheered and the entire team — Valentine, especially — jumped to its feet and celebrated.

Down in Champaign, on the floor at State Farm Center, Illini players and coaches sat in three rows of chairs. When their name was called, nobody stirred except for Underwood in the back row, who calmly stood. The whole group clapped quietly for a few nothing-to-see-here seconds.

“I think they were excited,” Underwood said. “This team’s always been at its best when it’s very businesslike.”

The Loyola-Ohio State game is considered a toss-up, but the Illini opened as 7½-point favorites against 27-win Chattanooga and would have a hard time living down a first-round loss. Anybody else old enough to remember Illinois losing to 14th-seeded Chattanooga in the second round in 1997? 

“We’re really dialed in,” star center Kofi Cockburn said. “We’re ready to take that next step. … I know we won’t have that [bad] feeling this year because we’re going to be prepared.”

A final four

• Do we care what CBS’ Seth Davis thinks? In case we do, the analyst stuck his neck out more than once during Sunday’s selection show.

“Let me be clear,” he declared, “the Chattanooga Mocs are going to the Sweet 16.”

Is that so? How nice for them.

Davis also picked Loyola to beat the Buckeyes.

• Gonzaga is the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, but it’s a different deal than it was last year when the Zags were unbeaten. This team lost to very young Duke in Las Vegas, was run out of the gym by wildly inconsistent Alabama in Seattle and got smacked around by double digits at Saint Mary’s. OK, so three total losses is still pretty good, but the point is there is no clear favorite this year.

• It’s nutty that Notre Dame — after going 15-5 in the ACC — has to start with a play-in game in Dayton against fellow 11 seed Rutgers. Both these teams are really good.

Even crazier is that Indiana is in a 12-vs.-12 play-in game against Wyoming. These were the last two at-large teams accepted into the field by the committee. Those of us who were 100% convinced the Hoosiers were in after they beat Illinois in the Big Ten quarterfinals were almost very wrong.

• A common theme in analysis of the field has been that 10 to 12 teams are capable of winning the championship this year. To that, I say: Not a chance. There never are that many. How many are there, really? Maybe half that many, if that. I’d name them for you, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense, now would I?

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