Illinois’ and Loyola’s state rivalry is on display — sort of — on a big weekend in Pittsburgh

Win or lose, the success of this Ramblers heyday is forever cemented. But the Illini have to get something done.

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Loyola Chicago v Illinois

Loyola and Illinois come in off very different 2021 NCAA Tournament experiences.

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — There was some big talk Thursday at PPG Paints Arena about the Land of Lincoln’s big bopper of a college basketball program.

In other news, Illinois also made an appearance.

But to listen to Ohio State tell it, there’s no tougher, no better, no more daunting team to play against than Loyola. The Buckeyes and Ramblers — the South Region’s seventh- and 10th-seeded teams, respectively — meet here Friday morning in the first of four NCAA Tournament first-round matchups (11:15 a.m., CBS-2).

“They’re as capable and as good a team as any team in this tournament,” Buckeyes center Joey Brunk said.

What gives him that idea? The Ramblers famously little-engined their way to the Final Four in 2018. They knocked off No. 1-seeded Illinois en route to the Sweet 16 in 2021. They’re back again at 26-7, looking to do some damage out of the gate, this time against a 19-12 squad from the Big Ten.

What else gives Brunk and his teammates that idea? Coach Chris Holtmann may have a little something to do with it.

“They’re really as good as any team we played all year,” Holtmann said. “There’s no question about it.”

Hear that, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue? Oh, yeah, and Duke?

It’s not that Loyola is playing with house money in this tournament. Each team wants to make its own mark, and this one is no different. But win or lose Friday, this heyday in the school’s basketball history is forever cemented.

Illinois could attempt to make a similar claim. The Illini would have broken through with a return to the tournament in 2020 if not for the pandemic nixing the event. The next season brought a Big Ten tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. This season, the Illini were league co-champs with Wisconsin. The wins and the good times are piling up.

Still, a first-round loss for the fourth-seeded Illini (22-10) against 13th-seeded Chattanooga (27-7) would be catastrophic (5:50 p.m., TNT). It would leave the program stuck on one tournament victory in the Brad Underwood era and — in a very bottom-line sense — waste the back-to-back first-team All-America seasons of guard Ayo Dosunmu, now a Bulls rookie, and center Kofi Cockburn.

Not that one win this time around would even begin to satisfy the Illini and their rabid, easily frustrated fans.

Illinois isn’t the goliath it aims to be yet. And the pressure to do something about that this postseason is significant.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” guard Andre Curbelo said. “We have a great group of guys that come out every day, play hard, bring energy, so I don’t think there’s any pressure. I think, if anything, it gives us a chance to play a little more free and even more fun because we know what happened last year.”

That’s one way to look at it. The Illini were crushed by that loss to Loyola. And teams that make a habit of falling short in March tend to be remembered for exactly that.

“We’re playing free,” guard Trent Frazier said. “We’re having fun. We’re ready to go on a run.”

Sounds like their coach may have gotten into their ears, too.

Someone else got in Loyola guard Lucas Williamson’s this week. It was a well-meaning person with a slightly off-target question.

“It has been interesting seeing other people and outside voices, their expectations,” Williamson said. “Somebody asked me, ‘How does it feel to be a favorite?’ ”

Williamson was part of the 2018 run and since has put together one of the finest Ramblers careers of anyone. But he’s a realist.

“I was like, ‘What? How are we a favorite?’ ” he said.

Against OSU, they aren’t. If they make it past their first game, they still won’t be.

It only seems like they are.

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