10 storylines to follow as NCAA tournament tips off
It's the first time since 2007 there are two Illinois schools in the NCAA Tournament, and there's no shortage of storylines to follow when Illinois and Loyola take the court Friday in Indianapolis.
Here are 10 of them ...
We're not talking about where the Illini or Ramblers will be with two wins this weekend, but the sweet 16-year trend Illinois is hoping continues.
Back in 1989, the Flying Illini became perhaps the most beloved team in school history, reaching the Final Four behind West Aurora's Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, Marcus Liberty and Larry Smith.
Sixteen years later Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine led Illinois back to the 2005 Final Four in a school-record 37-2 season.
That 2005 team took it one step further than '89, beating Louisville to reach the NCAA Championship game before losing to North Carolina.
Now 16 years later, the 2021 Illini are again a No. 1 seed. Can they repeat that 16-year Final Four trend? Can they also take it one step further than 2005, which would mean the school's first national title?
Champaign's proximity to Indianapolis, the first Illini NCAA appearance since 2013, and the fewer number of fans allowed because of COVID restrictions has created quite a demand. A check of StubHub showed the cheapest ticket for the Illini's opener with Drexel at $650 -- or $400 more than any other first-round game.
Loyola returns to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Missouri Valley tournament. The Ramblers made a Cinderella run to the 2018 Final Four as a No. 11 seed.
Loyola is an 8 seed but coach Porter Moser thought it would be higher after a 24-4 season and a No. 9 spot in the NCAA's NET rankings.
That should provide motivation when the Ramblers face Georgia Tech, the ACC Tournament champs.
"I still have 48 hours to fan that flame, and I'm going to," Moser said Wednesday. "I've seen a lot of other people say it (the seed) just didn't align with the metrics."
Senior center Cam Krutwig leads Loyola, the Jacobs graduate and MVC's MVP who began his career starting on the 2018 Final Four team. He's done things in the Valley only Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Hersey Hawkins have, and he was rewarded by being selected a third team All-American.
A popular question has been how this year's Loyola team compares to 2018.
"The biggest (similarity) is the senior leadership," Krutwig said. "Defensively, the numbers are in our favor, we are better defensively than that first team. We'll definitely be tested this tournament. We are ready to take that on."
Besides Krutwig, other players from the suburbs in the field include Michigan State's Jack Hoiberg (Hinsdale Central), Michigan's Mike Smith (Fenwick), Loyola's Tom Welch (Naperville North), Ohio State's Jimmy Santos (Conant) and St. Bonaventure's Jalen Shaw (Larkin).
Sister Jean returns
Sister Jean Delores Schmidt became a national celebrity during Loyola's 2018 run to the Final Four. Now 101 years old and vaccinated, she will be in Indianapolis.
"I'm super excited for her to be here and be around," Krutwig said. "She's kind of been bummed out not coming to the games but she's been calling and saying the prayer before every game. It will be good to get her out here in Indy and get her on board."
Moser named Aher Uguak his team's unsung hero. The 6-foot-7 senior from Canada is a defensive standout who has improved his offensive contributions to 7.6 points a game.
Illinois has its unsung heroes. The Illini are 14-1 since inserting Holy Cross transfer Jacob Grandison into its starting lineup in January. Giorgi Bezhanishvili has accepted a backup center role and sparked the Illini with 10 straight second half points in the Big Ten Tournament title game. Seniors Da'Monte Williams and Trent Frazier stuck around through lean years.
Frazier, an all-Big Ten defensive selection, showed up for Wednesday's media availability wearing a piece of the net Illinois cut down Sunday attached to his hat.
"This is four years worth of work," Frazier said. "It's been a long journey and this is a special feeling. I've not worn this hat since Sunday."
Coaches often are able to turn an NCAA Tournament run into a job at a bigger program. Moser had a chance to do that in 2018 but opted to stay at Loyola.
No doubt he will find his name on those lists again if the Ramblers make noise. There are openings at Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa State, DePaul and more.
Moser isn't the only coach who could find himself in demand. Whitney Young grad Dennis Gates has Cleveland State in as a 15 seed taking on No. 2 Houston. He's been mentioned as a possibility for DePaul and other openings.
Which player will have a big NCAA Tournament and move themselves up NBA Draft boards?
According to NBAdraft.net, nine of the 14 lottery picks are in the field: Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham (No. 1), USC's Evan Mobley (No. 2), Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs (No. 3), Florida State's Scottie Barnes (No. 6), Moses Moody from Arkansas (No. 7), Tennessee's Keon Johnson (No. 9), Gonzaga's Corey Kispert (No. 10), Tennessee's Jaden Springer (No. 11) and UConn's James Bouknight (No. 12).
Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu is projected to go 17 and Illini sophomore center Kofi Cockburn No. 34th.