Free Picks: Illinois Fighting Illini vs Loyola Chicago Ramblers

March Madness Illinois vs Loyola Chicago
Illinois Fighting Illini vs Loyola Chicago Ramblers, NCAA, Hinkle Fieldhouse

The No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini (24-6, 19-4 Big 10) have arguably been the most impressive team in NCAA Division I since mid-January, and they’ll put that reputation to the test on Sunday against the No. 8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (25-4, 19-2 MVC). Loyola Chicago has been red hot in its own right, though the Ramblers haven’t had to face anyone as good as Illinois this season. With a pair of top-five defenses, this game could come down to the last possession.

Can the Ramblers, no longer darling underdogs, keep up with the Illini?

Remember in 2018 when Sister Jean, burgundy jerseys and that 11th-seeded Midwest school you’d never heard of took the NCAA tournament by storm? That was Loyola Chicago, an easy-to-root-for underdog that surged all the way to the Final Four.

And now they’re back, with more respect on their name than before (evidenced by the 8th seed) and a dangerously good squad on the cusp of their second Sweet 16 berth in four years. In their way sits Illinois, an imposing seven-point favorite (-111 at Betway) on the latest NCAA basketball odds. We’ll use this BetPicks prediction to figure out where the Fighting Illini can cover, or if the Ramblers pose as an enticing upset pick.

Illinois has appeared to be the better team against the spread in recent weeks, but it’s almost a dead heat during tournament season. Loyola Chicago has covered in all four of its neutral-site tournament games (three in the Missouri Valley Conference, one in the NCAA tournament), while Illinois has covered in three of four (failing to cover once in the Big Ten tournament).

The Ramblers are third in D-I in adjusted defensive efficiency and the Illini are fourth. Illinois is more efficient on offense (eighth in D-I vs. 37th for Loyola Chicago), but Loyola Chicago has a better effective field goal percentage and two-point shooting percentage.

In other words, the on-paper layout of this matchup suggests two teams that are pretty evenly matched. Neither had much issue securing their first-round victories, so we aren’t going to find separation there. Illinois is obviously more proven, having played in the absolutely stacked Big Ten.

But what the Ramblers lack in strength of schedule — Illinois ranked fifth in that regard, while Loyola Chicago was 121st — they make up in experience. The Ramblers are 37th in D-I in experience, with five regular-rotation seniors who were part of that magical 2018 team.

For that reason, we really like the Ramblers to cover. Illinois might come out on top, but a seven-point buffer is pretty generous for this Loyola Chicago bunch.

Stats

  • Illinois is 8-2 ATS in its past 10 games
  • The OVER has cashed in six of the Fighting Illini’s past 10 games
  • Loyola Chicago is 5-5 ATS in its past 10 games
  • The UNDER has cashed in five of the Ramblers’ past eight games

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Jordan Horrobin is a freelance sports journalist based in Toronto, Ontario, who enjoys sports-related research and telling engaging stories. His work can also be found at Sportsnet, Forbes and elsewhere. Though he abandoned most of his team-specific fandoms in the interest of unbiased analysis, Jordan roots hard for his fantasy football/hockey teams (and he's a complete homer for all things Ohio University). You can follow Jordan on Twitter at @JordanHorrobin

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