From this point forward in the NCAA tournament, please resist any temptation to label Loyola Chicago some type of cuddly underdog. There are obvious urges to do so, as they come from a mid-major conference, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed and have the eternally divine Sister Jean as their spiritual beacon.
In the wake of its wire-to-wire evisceration of No. 1 Illinois on Sunday, casting Loyola as an underdog would make as much sense as casting Bobcat Goldthwait in a "Godfather" sequel. Loyola isn’t a Cinderella, it's a team of well-trained assassins.
For 40 brass-knuckle minutes on Sunday, the Ramblers showed the only fitting label they should carry with them the next few weeks — national title contenders.
The indelible image from the game came in the final minute, when Loyola’s crafty big man, Cameron Krutwig, swiped the ball from Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu and broke into a dance typically reserved for WWE heels when the ball skittered out of bounds off Dosunmu for a turnover.
The literal and metaphoric stomping left us with a GIF to sum up the game, a curb-stomping accentuated by a coaching mismatch. Don’t tell Sister Jean, but Krutwig, Lucas Williamson and reserve Marquise Kennedy played the part of schoolyard bully and left Illinois overwhelmed, embarrassed and without its lunch money.
Illinois finished its season 24-7 and Big Ten tournament champions. But this team will be remembered more as a cruel tease, as Loyola’s defense so emasculated the Illini that the only statistic they appeared to lead the game in was complaining to the officials.
“I guess people kind of forgot or something, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year,” said Krutwig, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. “I guess people chalk it up to maybe being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, play the right way, and we follow the scout and follow the scheme.”
The Jesuits must discourage taunting, as that’s the closest to any griping Loyola did about the committee’s biggest miss in seeding this tournament. Loyola ranked in the KenPom Top 10, boasted one of the country’s top defenses and won 24 games. They also have the pedigree of the 2018 Final Four run.
But the selection committee has long reserved the high seeds for the big brands, and that’s why a 24-win team that performed like a No. 4 or No. 5 seed all season got tabbed as a No. 8. Hopefully, Sister Jean says a rosary for the failing vision of Mitch Barnhart and the rest of the NCAA selection committee.
Loyola took this victory in such casual stride that coach Porter Moser, who is emerging as Brad Stevens 2.0, had to gather his guys after the game and remind them to enjoy it. There’s a hokey but genuine side to Moser that can make even cynics smile.
“It's amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe, and these guys believed." Moser said. "From start to finish.”
Behind the pleasantries, politeness and formalities, Moser has emerged as one of the game’s elite tacticians. Loyola guarded ball screens so well that they did what few in the Big Ten could do — bottle up Dosunmu and hold an electric offense to 23 points below its average. The game both assured Moser could fill the NABC convention each year with ball-screen clinics and likely sent Marquette boosters scrambling for extra millions to try to lure him to Milwaukee.
What makes this Loyola team so much more prepared to win the national title than the 2018 version that went to the Final Four? The coaches who’ve studied Loyola start with that defense, as the Ramblers are a symphony of balletic switches and concise movement.
Loyola’s schemes are complex enough that it'll occasionally switch ball-screen coverages amid a possession to confuse opponents. Against Illinois, they pressured the screens — “high ice” is the term — so vociferously that it forced Illinois to make a skip pass and kept them out of the paint.
Moser uses a simple Rick Majerus philosophy: How do you start the domino on offense? On defense, how do you stop the domino? Essentially, play offense so you are being chased and play defense without chasing. Easier said than done.
Today we saw an offense that operated so fluidly — 16 assists against a stifling defense — that Illinois defenders were chasing the Ramblers thanks to the crisp ball movement. On defense, the Ramblers double-teamed ball screens until the dribbler stopped. Then they managed to scramble back to avoid getting caught out of rotation. The offense is deliberate enough that it acts as a pressurizer to shorten the game, the same ball-possession concept that allows college football programs like Army and Navy to dictate how games are played.
Throughout the game, Illinois’ offense was so disrupted that coach Brad Underwood looked lost in searching for answers. “We got out-fought,” he admitted afterwards. Illinois, the country’s No. 14 offense, had its lowest offensive output of the season by five points. Dosunmu finished with six of Illinois’ 17 turnovers.
“His ball-screen defense may be the best in the country,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said of Moser. “When they ice it and they don’t leave till they picked up the dribbler, it really messes with teams.”
How much better is this Loyola team than the 2018 version? A lot, according to those who’ve seen both. Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, who lost to Loyola in Round 1 of the NCAAs in 2018, told Yahoo Sports that this Loyola team is better for “lots of reasons.”
Loyola won its first three games of that 2018 NCAA tournament by a combined four points, which led to some of the karmic forces of Sister Jean being factored into the run. This team has a double-digit win over ACC tournament champion Georgia Tech and a 13-point win over Illinois.
Larrañaga points to the improved defense and deeper bench as reasons why he thinks this Loyola team is better. He also points out that Krutwig and Williamson are seniors who’ve been through a Final Four run, and Loyola has years of cultural building blocks in the wake of the Final Four.
While Loyola’s defense ranks No. 1 in KenPom and their overall ranking has jumped to No. 7, the wonderfully unquantifiable complement to a trove of talent and well-executed schemes is an aura of grittiness that often accompanies the overlooked.
“Everyone says good culture, but it’s real with them,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “And they are the toughest team I’ve watched in some time.”
You won’t get an argument from Illinois, which staggers away from this game out-schemed, out-toughed and out-classed. It’s hard to attribute this edition of Loyola to anything cosmic, especially after Illinois never had a prayer.
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