INDIANAPOLIS – Illinois was already in trouble, already in offensive disarray, already in an afternoon of astonishing futility against the most seductive defense in college basketball. And at the 4:40 mark of the first half came the play that crystallized just how ready No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago was for the state’s No. 1 seed.
A high pass entered the 7-foot-1, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn monolith, who caught it just feet from the basket. The pass went over the head of Loyola’s pillar of strength, Cameron Krutwig, 6-foot-9, 255-pound, who wandered in perpetual defensive motion, guarding ball screens outside and hitting bodies inside, gobbling everything up.
This play looked like a win for Illinois, about to end in a dunk that shook the board for Cockburn. But as the ball flew towards him, Loyola’s Lucas Williamson ran from near the corner to get between Cockburn and the rim. And then Krutwig applied the sandwich from the outside. And then the Marchioness Kennedy came from the opposite wing to circle big Illini as Custer in Little Bighorn.
Cockburn still tried to get over the smaller Ramblers for the basket. But the 6-foot-1 Kennedy got up and hit the shot from behind, then scored on the other end 18 seconds later. The score was Loyola 28, Illinois 16, and it was pretty clear where it was headed.
Harry Potter scarves fluttered at the Loyola end of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and Illinois fans felt the fear of a crushing loss growing at the other end. The Ramblers were better, and the Ramblers got back into the business of killing giants at the NCAA tournament.
The final score was 71-58. There was nothing by chance about it. The Illini, champions of the Big Ten tournament and a fashionable selection in the national championship, never led a single second.
Not respected by the NCAA selection committee with a No. 8 seed after a dominant 24–4 season in the Missouri Valley Conference, Loyola made his statement loud and clear. They are happy to have the 101-year-old nun, Sister Jean, back on the tournament road with them, but they don’t need her to seek divine intervention. They are good enough to be in Indy long enough to pay taxes and register to vote.
“We’ve been there before,” said coach Porter Moser, and that was a key distinction. The team that the committee tried to fit into a Cinderella outfit actually had a lot more experience in this setting than the Illini. “I’ve said it before as Loyola’s coach: it’s amazing what you can do when everyone believes.”
That was part of the mantra three years ago, when the Ramblers made an epic boom in the Final Four as the No. 11 seed. But even that race didn’t have a win like this. The ’18 team defeated the sixth, third, seventh and ninth seeded teams to reach the national semifinals; this time, they took down a large dog.
There are only two players left who played in the 2017-18 squad, Krutwig and Williamson (a third, Aher Uguak, was on the roster, but was not transferred). They are the oldest in heart and soul, who have wholeheartedly bought everything Moser was selling and now pass it on to the younger players just as it was passed on to them. This is tradition in action.
“This is how it works,” Moser said. “To sustain a program, it is necessary for the older ones to join the younger ones.”
And you need a coach to prepare the potion that the elders pour. All sports leaders talk about the importance of “culture,” but Moser is among the main creators of it in college basketball. What he did after Sunday’s game was a good example.
When the horn sounded, guard Braden Norris gleefully struck the ball over the March Madness logo and the celebration began. But after all the hugs and a group hello from Sister Jean and the other fans, the Ramblers made their way to the locker room. That’s when Moser called them back to the ground to get some more soaked.
The team harassed Krutwig during his post-game CBS interview, then met up with Moser for his as well. They then took a longer curtain call with fans and families, who waved and cheered from the upper deck.
“I felt like against Georgia Tech (after beating the Yellow Jackets on Friday) we just took off,” he said. “I always tell them: ‘Let’s enjoy the moment, let’s enjoy that victory.’ Our fans were there. We haven’t had fans all year and they didn’t want to leave. … I wanted them to stay outside and enjoy it because that is etched in your memory, that moment right there, and to feel all the work you have put in, all the effort you make to stay together, the sacrifices you make, especially this year. “
During the messiest season ever, Loyola has maintained the defensive DNA that made him so difficult in 2018. The Ramblers strangled the Missouri Valley Conference all season and have continued to suffocate their opponents here in Indy.
Georgia Tech remained at its lowest point total (60) since Feb. 10. Illinois then held on to its fewest points of the season as the free-flowing Illini took on a team that gives up nothing in transition and is even tougher in midfield.
The defensive game plan and execution for the Ramblers on Sunday was basketball art. Already a team that expertly changes, rotates and helps, the Ramblers took it to another level to eliminate national candidate of the year Ayo Dosunmu on the outside and have Cockburn work for his points on the inside. They guarded the path that only Loyola guards.
“No one was doing anything outside of their body, outside of their mind,” Krutwig said. “We just stick to the game plan.”
They squeezed the driving lines at Dosunmu in pick-and-roll situations, aided by defenders who went ahead and forced him to pass or settle for perimeter shots. He scored nine points, the fewest since January 6, 2020. He made just 10 shots. He committed six turnovers, apparently unprepared for the flashing hands of the Ramblers that kept hitting the ball away from him.
And as noted above, they surrounded Cockburn when he caught the ball, forcing a guy who doesn’t pass much (five assists on the year) to give up the stone. Cockburn finished with 21 points, but it was a lot of work.
The key to much of the defensive scheme was Krutwig. All he had to do was face two NBA talents in completely different ways, often with the same possession.
“I keep it at such a high level,” Moser said. “He’ll make six big plays in a row and miss one, and I’m about to lose my mind. He always looks at me like, ‘Coach, calm down.
“I think the reason his defense is good is because he has a mental engine. He sees it start to come and develop, and then he gets ahead of the play, and I thought his defense on the ball screens and his defense on the post was excellent. … A huge task. You’re sitting there saying, ‘Krut, you have to put screen D against Ayo, an All-American, but then you have to put D against Kofi, an All-American on the post. Do it, boy. “
He had on that. And he won the day.
The fact that Krutwig looks more like a Chicago bus driver than an elite basketball player adds to Loyola’s mystique. Between the receding hairline, the unfortunate mustache, and the large but unsculpted body, he’s not exactly the material of the first to get off the bus. Or material of the first kind on the tray line, since you can’t jump over a comic.
Basically, you wonder how he can play the same sport as Cockburn, let alone get the best of it. And then you see him in deliberate and cunning action, a pachydermic prisoner of gravity who is a ballerina with the ball.
Krutwig plays as a point center, with Loyola’s offense flowing through and around him. Playing with his back to the basket most of the time, he somehow sees everything. Transfers, rebound passes and screens create opportunities for his teammates, which is how he has racked up more than 300 assists in his career. And when it’s time to score, the variety of pivots, pump fakes and other post moves is a poor man’s Kevin McHale kick.
This was his 129th college basketball game, and perhaps the best: 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four steals of his career. The NBA has no interest in him, but he was the best player on the court against Illinois. And it could be halfway to a second Final Four.
This should come as no surprise to anyone other than the selection committee. If you watched Loyola play and untagged teams, there’s no way the Ramblers would have been an eighth seed. This is not the brave little 11th seed that comes out of nowhere like 2018.
“It’s definitely a different story,” Krutwig said. “We came to this tournament 17th in the country in the AP poll. We have a seed of 8. That’s just the hand they dealt to us. We feel that we are one of the best teams in the country and I think we showed it in these last two games ”.
Moser is without a doubt one of the best coaches in the country, which is why people are trying to wish him for Indiana, Minnesota or Marquette. You could take one of those jobs, or you could continue building Butler By Lake Michigan.
For now, none of those options matter. The future can wait. Porter Moser and Loyola are firmly established here in the present, snatching souls with defense, soaking up the joy of March Madness, and not planning to leave Indy until April.
The SI tournament newsletter looks at everything you need to know about the Big Dance – what just happened and what will happen next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.