Illinois and Loyola went to battle Sunday afternoon with March Madness only 35 games old. And they played the most consequential game of the tournament yet. The eighth-seeded Ramblers didn’t “stun” the top-seeded Illini. This wasn’t a fluky upset. They beat them, straight-up, wire to wire. With brains, but also with brawn.
In doing so, they knocked off a title favorite and busted open an entire half of the bracket. With one round plus one game played, two of the top three teams on the right side were gone. By 7:30 p.m. ET, four of the top seven were gone. By 12:30 a.m., five of the top eight were gone. The best player was as well.
By the end of the night, that right half of the Sweet 16 was set. Up top, in the South, one team has separated itself. Down below, however, the Midwest is a mess.
A beautiful, intriguing, talented mess.
Any of the four teams remaining could win it.
Loyola is a Final Four contender – at least
You heard it before the tournament. You heard it Sunday. You’ll hear it again: Loyola is legit. Better than its Final Four team of three years ago. Capable of getting back to the Final Four, and perhaps beyond.
All the reasons were on display against Illinois. The switchable, strong, principled defense. The methodical, crisp, balanced offense. The husky but delicate superstar down low. The sharp, steady coach on the sideline.
The headline on this article asked: Loyola busted the bracket's right side wide open, but for whom?
The answer, or at least one of the answers, is Loyola. After a pair of other upsets in the region – including No. 12 Oregon State over No. 4 Oklahoma State – the Ramblers are the second-highest seed remaining. They now have the fifth-shortest title odds at BetMGM. As our Pete Thamel wrote, they're capable of winning it.
The Midwest could be anybody’s – including Syracuse’s
The Midwest upheaval continued below the fold, early Sunday evening, when 11th-seeded Syracuse shot its way past third-seeded West Virginia. This, too, was barely an upset.
The Orange have been the region’s second-most impressive team. And their game against the Mountaineers might have been the tournament’s most impressive game. Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard were hitting from the logo. Marek Dolezaj tossed some gorgeous touch-passes. Syracuse fended off multiple West Virginia runs, and advanced to the second weekend.
Its regular-season inconsistency no longer matters. Jim Boeheim has been here before. Buddy, his son, will rise up from anywhere and drain 3s in your eye. He’s averaging 25 points per game over his past nine. There’s plenty to like about his supporting cast too. And the famed zone remains perplexing to the uninitiated.
Cuse’s one weakness, though, will be attacked relentlessly in the Sweet 16. Of the 68 teams in the tournament, none were worse on the defensive glass than Syracuse. And of the 24 teams remaining, none are better on the offensive glass than Houston.
The second-seeded Cougars stormed back from a double-digit deficit, and closed the game on a 14-2 run, to oust 10th-seeded Rutgers. Half of the 14 points came via offensive boards over the final three-and-a-half minutes. Houston does not have the incisive passers or knockdown shooters to pick apart Syracuse’s zone. But missing shots might be the best route to layups anyway.
The bracket opens up for Baylor
The real answer to the question in the headline, though, is Baylor. In seeing off Wisconsin with relative ease, the top-seeded Bears looked as good as they have since their COVID-19 pause in February. And standing between them and a Final Four is …
Shorthanded Villanova? The Wildcats shot North Texas out of Indy on Sunday night, but don’t have the firepower to trouble Baylor.
Arkansas? The second-best team remaining in the South region, sure, but also as erratic as any. The Razorbacks’ A-game could beat Baylor, but nobody trusts them to play their A-game for 40 minutes. They very nearly blew a 13-point second-half lead to Texas Tech on Sunday, and might have if the Red Raiders hadn’t missed two layups and the front end of a one-and-one over the game’s final 90 seconds. (Or if the refs had called a foul on one of the missed.)
And Oral Roberts? Cute story, but no chance.
Baylor is now the clear favorite to reach the title game from the right side of the bracket.
The full right-side Sweet 16 slate
The Sweet 16 is set for Saturday. From top of the bracket to bottom:
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Villanova
No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts
No. 8 Loyola vs. No. 12 Oregon State
No. 11 Syracuse vs. No. 2 Houston
Eight teams will join them within 24 hours. Here's the Monday schedule, ranked from most watchable game to least.
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