At the start of a season in which non-conference competition was extremely limited in both availability and quantity, the Loyola Ramblers faced Wisconsin and Richmond in back-to-back games in mid-December. They lost each one.
Even together, these were not devastating blows for the Ramblers. However, they were defining. The only indicators the NCAA Tournament selection committee had to measure Loyola’s performance were those results; his games against the Missouri Valley Conference’s main rival, Drake; its success in the 11th position of the 31 leagues of Division I; and advanced metrics such as the NCAA Assessment Tool, also known as NET.
None of this affected Loyola’s selection for the tournament. The Ramblers took care of that by winning Valley’s automatic bid in the championship game two weeks ago. They then waited a week to see where they would be sown, and were placed as No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region.
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In a country that can quickly generate a lot of anger given the ease of posting on social media around a sporting event that annually produces rare passion, outrage over the Ramblers seed registered around 1.1 on the scale. by Richter. It was no big deal. Actually, it wasn’t even a deal.
It is now, because Loyola’s position at eighth in the Midwest group led to a second-round game against top seed Illinois. And that led to Fighting Illini leaving after two games of a tournament many believed they could win. Loyola controlled his second-round game from end to end and was never seriously challenged in a 71-58 victory.
“We came to this tournament ranked 17th in the country in the AP poll,” star center Cameron Krutwig told reporters in a post-game Zoom call. “We have a seed of 8; that’s just the hand they dealt to us. We feel like one of the best teams in the country. I think we showed it in these last two games ”.
To reach their second Sweet 16 in the last three NCAA Tournaments, the Ramblers had to defeat the reigning ACC Tournament champions and the Big Ten Tournament champions. Both fell in double digits.
Loyola jumped to a 9-4 lead before the first television timeout against Illini, and that initial surge honestly defined the game. Illinois’ game plan to pull star center Kofi Cockburn away from Krutwig at the high post paid little dividend by making Cockburn available to deter cutters from attacking the rim, and Krutwig faced no ball pressure and made decisions freely. on how and where to pass the ball. .
Although it was apparent earlier that Illini couldn’t make the necessary stops in the middle of the court to come back (the Ramblers shot 51 percent from the field), they didn’t install full court pressure until the final minutes of the game. Cockburn finished with 21 points, but All-American Ayo Dosunmu couldn’t find an answer for the inordinate amount of defensive attention paid to him and finished with nine points on 4 of 10 shooting.
“That’s a great thing about us,” Krutwig said. “We can really adapt to any style of play. You cannot think that you are one of the best teams in the country. You have to think like this. You have to play like this. And we are excited to get to the next one. “
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Krutwig wasn’t being arrogant when he reminded everyone, “I’ve been here before.” I was just explaining that this is a show that progressed to the Final Four in 2018, when I was a freshman surrounded by such sublime veterans as Clayton Custer, Marques Townes, and Ben Richardson.
He is now the oldest and has built one of the great careers in Missouri Valley Conference history, with a combined line of stats (at least 1,500 points, 800 rebounds and 300 assists) achieved by only three other players in history. of the league. Those players are, ahem: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Hersey Hawkins.
With 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists on Sunday, Krutwig now has 1.8219, 936 and 369 in his career, respectively. More importantly, the Ramblers are the first of 16 teams that will continue to compete for the national championship next weekend.
“Guys believe, I tell them,” Loyola’s coach Porter Moser told reporters. “We always talk about having safe respect. I have the utmost respect for everything they did, but you must have the confidence to beat them. We have seen them do well on television. And the guys had that. “
As the Illini fell, the online harangues about Loyola’s seeded position began. Yet of the more than 200 groups compiled online in The Bracket Matrix, including Bill Bender’s for Sporting News, 70 percent placed the Ramblers at an 8th or lower spot.
The Ramblers were ranked No. 9 on KenPom.com, which may be the most followed predictive metric in the game, and No. 10 on the NET. But three of the top 20 teams at KenPom and six of the top 20 teams at RED fell in first-round games. The average rank of the teams that conquered the NET elite: No. 67.
It was difficult to judge the Ramblers based on a record that included two losses to teams that did not make the NCAA, only three wins over teams that did, and none against opponents who were highly seeded by the committee. Drake, who lost twice to Loyola, was a No. 11 seed; North Texas was number 14.
The Ramblers earned their spot in the Sweet 16 with two comfortable victories because they are an excellent team, but also because their style makes them an excellent team that is difficult to play. They are among the slowest-paced teams in all of Division I. Illinois never found the answer for how to deal with them. Loyola is a complex problem in many ways.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.