CHICAGO (CBS) --is officially upon us – and both the Fighting Illini and the Loyola Ramblers will be opening tournament play in the Steel City.
The No. 4 seed Fighting Illini won't have an easy go of it in Round One against the Southern Conference Regular Season and Tournament champions of No. 13 Chattanooga. The Big Ten regular season co-champ Illini will come into the dance with a lot to prove too – after getting bounced from the Big Ten Tournament early and falling to the Loyola Ramblers in the second round of last year's tournament.
Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, and Da'Monte Williams are all likely making their last run in the orange and blue this tourney.
The Illini-Chattanooga game is scheduled for Friday at 5:50 p.m. on TNT. If the Illinoi advance, they'll play the winner of the game between No. 5 seed Houston and No. 12 seed University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The expectations are different for the Illini this year, and they say they don't mind that one bit.
"You know, there's always going to be people that don't believe in us, but you know, we're not going to really focus on that. We're just going to keep it one game at a time, and you know, hopefully prove anyone who doubts us wrong," said Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins.
"It's OK. The seeds, you know, the games are all hard. It doesn't matter, and you've got to show up. You're going to have to play somebody really good - and it's probably a conference champion – and win a boatload of games," said Illini Coach Brad Underwood. "So we're quite fine with that."
"We still have that bad taste in our mouth of being eliminated the second round, so, you know, yes, it's special, but we can't try to lose track – you know what happened last year= - and try to learn from it, and go on, because, like I said, seeds don't matter," Frazier said. "You've just got to be better that night."
Meanwhile, you can't call the No. 10 seed Loyola Ramblers a Cinderella team anymore. They're opening tournament play against Ohio State, after earning their second straight bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 60 years.
Ninety percent of last year's Sweet 16 Loyola team returned this season, and they are right where they want to be.
The Ramblers are entering the dance on an automatic bid after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. It will be first-year Head Coach Drew Valentine's first NCAA Tournament at the helm, but he came up with the team as an assistant under Porter Moser.
Loyola is going up against former Illinois Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell and the No. 7 seed Ohio State Buckeyes. The Ramblers are coming in with some confidence against Big Ten teams after ending Illinois' season last year.
You can watch Loyola against Ohio State on CBS 2 at 11:15 a.m. Friday.
The winner will play either No. 2 Villanova or No. 15 seed Delaware.
Guard Lucas Williamson said the Ramblers are ready to make a run.
"It's just a great feeling, with this being my last year. This is exactly where we wanted to be. This is exactly where I wanted to be," he said. "So it's a great feeling to have an opponent and get back to work."
"I think personally, we're one of the hardest-working teams in the country. I mean, the culture is different, everyone wants to win, and we're going to do what's necessary to win," said Loyola forward Aher Uguak.
"We know that, you know, we played a two, three-possession game with Auburn. We know that we beat San Francisco. We know that we beat DePaul and Vanderbilt, and we've lost on a buzzer-beater to Michigan State. So like, drawing back on that, mixed in with the fact that I think that group – they really feel like they're in control of their own destiny," said Valentine. "That's why I'm confident with this group."
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