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Illini ready to face Loyola Chicago's tough defense

Illini ready to face Loyola Chicago's tough defense

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INDIANAPOLIS — Everyone knows Loyola Chicago’s Sister Jean, but as much as the 101-year-old nun can motivate the Ramblers, she won’t be sinking a basket or blocking a shot on Sunday when the No. 1-seeded Illinois men’s basketball team plays No. 8-seeded Loyola in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Ramblers’ top point scorer and shot blocker is center Cameron Krutwig, who was named the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year. The senior averages 14.9 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and three assists per game.

“He’s a point-center. He’s a unique guy that they run their offense through and he might have one of the best floaters in college basketball,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “At 6-foot-9, 260 pounds that thing is a tear drop and he is terrific. He is an excellent passer and he sees the game at a pace that is very slow and he sees things ahead. He is a very capable scorer.

“I’m a big fan, and I think he is the head of the snake for them. They’ve got a great plan around him with shooters and guys that can cut and he does a good job of finding them.”

One of those shooters is senior Lucas Williamson, a youth league teammate of Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu. Williams, the MVC defensive player of the year, averages 8.6 points per game but scored 21 points in a 71-60 win over Georgia Tech on Friday in the Ramblers’ return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since making their memorable Final Four run in 2018. Loyola was in the NIT in 2019 before last season’s NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We didn’t have to go really deep into the offensive playbook (against Drexel) but obviously as we move forward, Loyola is one of the outstanding defensive teams in the country,” Underwood said. “They have age and experience, starting with Williamson and Krutwig. Both of those guys have seen a lot and been through a lot. We will have to earn every basket.”

In the KenPom defensive efficiency rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), Loyola is ranked third (86.8 points) and Illinois is fifth (88.1) in the nation. Although the Ramblers are strong defensively, Underwood believes the Illini have seen defenses just as tough already this season.

“We have seen a lot of teams that have been in the top 10 defensively in the Big Ten and I think it is a matter of execution. They don’t make mistakes and they are very handsy,” Underwood said. “They do a great job in their ball screen coverages and protecting Krutwig. They do a great job of playing with high hands and they make passing difficult at times because of their hands.

“They are well-schooled and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. Combine that with their tempo on offense and that’s how you get a team that doesn’t give up a lot of points.”

Loyola and Illinois have met once before in NCAA Tournament play as the Ramblers won 79-64 in the 1963 Mideast Regional final en route to an NCAA title. Dave Downey led the Illini with 20 points but Loyola’s Jerry Harkness scored 33, which remains the highest point total against the Illini in an NCAA Tournament game.

Illinois fans outnumbered Drexel backers in the first round but they may have some cheering competition in the limited seating on Sunday against another team from Illinois.

“It was great having the fans there. We’ve had a limited number (on Friday) but they were mostly orange and scattered throughout the building. We definitely heard them,” Underwood said. “I’m excited again because I know the Illini nation is pretty powerful and we will see them (Sunday) at Bankers Life.”

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