The Round of 32 tipped off for the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Sunday and three Big Ten teams were in action, including top seeded Illinois. The day offered the league a chance to prove its supremacy in college basketball. Instead, the day ended in a nightmare.
Let’s take a look at what happened.
Game of the Night:
-No. 8 Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers 71, No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini 58
Nothing is guaranteed in March. It’s something we hear every year, but it’s hard to believe in the moment. We spend months watching games, breaking down rosters, and projecting matchups. It’s hard to throw everything out the window because a calendar flips.
But Sunday proved it once again.
In March, the unexpected becomes reality.
And unfortunately for Illinois, it was on the rough side of that formula on Sunday.
While the Illini entered Sunday’s matchup against Loyola (Chicago) having won 15 of its last 16 games and boasting a loaded roster, that didn’t matter much when the ball was thrown in the air. The Ramblers came to play and showed it all afternoon. Loyola (Chicago) played absurdly good defense, were aggressively, and got great play from Cameron Krutwig, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
By the time Illinois woke up, it felt like the game was already over. Illinois’ backcourt particularly underwhelmed as Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier combined for just 11 points on 20 field goal attempts against the Ramblers. Loyola (Chicago) eventually grabbed a convincing 71-58 win to move on to the Sweet 16.
Obviously, this was a crushing loss for Illinois. There’s really no other way to spin this. Illinois was a team many thought was good enough to win the national championship and now finds itself heading home after the Round of 32. Even if the team got dealt a seeding disservice (yes, the Ramblers probably shouldn’t have been an eight seed), an exit this early is crushing. This team was too good to be going home like this. It’s something Illini fans won’t soon forget. It also knocks out what many thought was the Big Ten’s best chance to win it all this year.
-No. 1 Baylor Bears 76, No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers 63
Despite an impressive showing on Friday night against North Carolina and a great start against Baylor on Sunday, this was the end of the road for the Badgers. The team played admirably, but just didn’t have enough firepower to keep pace with a loaded Baylor squad. There are times when you simply have to tip your hat to the better team and Sunday’s matchup certainly qualified.
Wisconsin fell to 18-13 overall with the loss and will now enter the offseason with plenty of question marks. While player eligibility is a bit uncertain in today’s COVID-19 world, Wisconsin was primarily led by seniors this season. In fact, the team’s five leaders in total minutes all had senior eligibility. Barring some surprising returns, Wisconsin’s going to look substantially different next season. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out.
-No. 2 Houston Cougars 63, No. 10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 60
Collapse is really the only word that can describe this one. With less than five minutes to go, Rutgers held a nine-point lead over Houston and looked destined for the program’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1979. Unfortunately, the Cougars went on a 14-2 run to finish the game, pulling off the comeback and sending Rutgers home. It was a brutal way to end what was a marvelous season for Scarlet Knight fans.
Rutgers fell to 16-12 overall with the loss and will now enter an offseason with plenty of uncertainty as well. Star guard Jacob Young already hinted that he’ll be departing and it’s hard to believe he’s the only one. But regardless of how this team looks next season, we can’t forget how special this group was over the last few years. They resurrected a Rutgers program that had been dead for decades and it deserves some appreciation, especially as the pain of Sunday’s loss fades.