How Loyola Reached The Final Four

I’m enjoying the Sister Jean storyline with the Loyola Ramblers as much as anyone, on their improbable (dare we say divinely inspired?) run to the Final Four. But I’m confident even the good nun would affirm the Catholic Church’s belief that God’s miracles are usually worked through ordinary human means. And in that spirit, we’re going to take a look at the human means that have keyed Loyola’s run through this season and then in the NCAA Tournament.

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It starts with defense. Loyola ranks 19th in the country in defensive efficiency. The Ramblers ability to play defense was a reason some of us were optimistic about their chances on the first weekend of the Tournament. Their opponents, Miami and Tennessee, seemed non-descript as favorites and a team that could lock it down on the defensive end would have a very good chance of surviving in the Sweet 16.

That’s what happened. Loyola probably should have lost the first game to Miami, but for the fact the Ramblers forced 15 turnovers to keep themselves in the game, including a big one down the stretch that set the stage for Donte Ingram’s stunning 28-foot trey that produced the 64-62 win. Two days later, the Ramblers avoided fouling and Tennessee only got to the line six times. That set up Clayton Custer’s last-second shot that hit every part of the rim before falling in and delivering a 63-62 win.

The Loyola defense hit a new level at the regionals in Atlanta. They forced Nevada into a 41% shooting performance, enabling the Ramblers to escape with another one-point win where they were outplayed in several other areas of the game. And finally, against Kansas State, Loyola smothered the Wildcats into 35% shooting in the 78-62 rout.

It’s a basic adage of basketball that defense never slumps. A shooter can give an honest effort, but have days where the shots don’t fall. On defense, if you’re good at it and playing hard, it will be there. That’s what got Loyola into the NCAAs for the first time since 1985 and it’s what got them playing in San Antonio on Saturday.

Loyola is also exceptionally well-balanced. They have five players averaging in double figures, all of them between 10-13ppg. It’s impossible for a defense to decide which player to key on. They also have good depth, consistently getting production from the bench. The most vivid example this March has been Aundre Jackson. He’s come off the bench for a 16-point game against Tennessee and 15 more against Nevada.

Loyola shoots the three-ball well. Four players—Custer, Ingram, Marques Townes and Ben Richardson—combine to shoot 17 treys per game and they all hit 40 percent from behind the arc. That’s exceptional efficiency and it doesn’t include Lucas Williamson, another bench player who hits 42 percent in limited minutes.

On ESPN’s daily talk show Pardon The Interruption last week, the Ramblers got high praise for their intelligence and how well they cut to the middle of the court. That’s a ripple effect of the three-point shooting. You get the floor spaced, as the defense has to extend to the arc, then start cutting into the middle.

That sort of intelligent basketball is a fruit of experience. Six of the top seven player are upperclassmen. In today’s game, the most talented power teams can’t fully develop because so many kids leave early for the NBA. The way for programs like Loyola to balance the playing field in March is to counter inexperience with veteran cohesion. And that’s exactly what they have done.

Can they magic continue on Saturday? Michigan is a hot basketball team right now and a solid 5 ½ point favorite to beat Loyola. But on the flip side…that pointspread is about the same margin that Villanova is favored by over Kansas. If you wouldn’t be shocked to see Kansas win, then logic says you should be no more shocked to see Loyola win.

Michigan has also caught some breaks themselves—a #3 seed, they avoided playing the three toughest possible opponents in their bracket, as Xavier, North Carolina and Gonzaga all went down. The Wolverines are good, but it has to be said that it’s still a break for Loyola to catch a team that finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten at this level of competition.

Breaks in the bracket are what Loyola has gotten since that first weekend. They were able to avoid Cincinnati, then Virginia or Kentucky in last weekend’s two wins. Loyola has needed last second shots three different times. As to how the shots keep falling and the bracket breaks keep happening…well, I don’t have any ordinary human means to explain all that and I’ll have to defer to Sister Jean.