This NCAA tournament has its Cinderella in the Sweet 16.
Loyola Chicago, the South Region’s No. 11 seed, beat third-seeded Tennessee in the round of 32 on Saturday in Dallas, 63-62. The Ramblers hadn’t made the field since 1985 until this year, but the Missouri Valley champions are reasserting themselves with authority. The only tournament moment as dramatic as this winning shot to beat the Vols ...
... was this winning shot to beat Miami two days earlier:
This is an incredible March Madness story, but the Ramblers are more than that.
To beat Tennessee, the Ramblers followed a familiar formula: Make shots and play defense. The Ramblers entered the day eighth in Division I in effective field goal percentage, a measure of shooting talent that weights threes as 50 percent more valuable than twos. They were in the top 30 in defensive efficiency, even when adjusted for opponent. They needed late-game heroics to win after blowing a big lead, but they got that lead by doing what they’ve always done. To get a lucky roll at the end, they had to be good all night.
It turns out those are good skills to have in the tournament. After using them to beat sixth-seeded Miami in the round of 64, the Ramblers put the brakes on the Vols by doing similar work. Tennessee wasn’t a good shooting team this year, and Loyola played tight defense all evening. The Vols shot 45 percent from the field and needed to be just a notch higher.
The Ramblers knocked down eight of 20 three-pointers and shot 50 percent from the field. Balance has been their offensive strength all season, with five players averaging double-figure scoring but nobody above 13.4 points per game entering the day. They spread the ball around again, with 17 assists on 22 made shots from the field. Aundre Jackson’s 16 points led the way, and then six players had between 6 and 10.
Loyola is a lovable Cinderella and so easy to root for.
If you’ve watched more than two minutes of either of their first two games, you’re already familiar with Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who serves as the team’s chaplain, gives motivational speeches to the players, and picked them to lose in the Sweet 16.
98-year-old Sister Jean has a bracket but she has Loyola losing in the Sweet Sixteen pic.twitter.com/XPST9lwCic— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 17, 2018
But this team’s likability goes deeper. Loyola has a proud basketball tradition, headlined by the Ramblers winning the national championship in 1963. The program has spent years in the wilderness since then. The tournament drought before this season’s appearance was 33 years. Before that appearance in 1985, the drought had been 16 years. And the program never made a tournament at all before winning it in ‘63. Loyola fans have been among the most patient in college basketball, and they’re being rewarded in droves.
Also, their school colors match Harry Potter’s house at Hogwarts:
holy crap Gryffindor is about to make the NCAA Tournament pic.twitter.com/C2Gf4OxMdZ— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 4, 2018
But Loyola’s not just fun. Loyola could pull off a Final Four run.
Should you expect that? No, because three other teams will be at the South regional next weekend in Atlanta. Those will include Kentucky, which is playing its best basketball and might have a walk in the Sweet 16. They will probably include Cincinnati, a No. 2 seed that plays better defense than almost anyone. The Ramblers’ work is cut out for them.
The Ramblers are serious, though. They’re really, really serious. All of that defense and shooting will play against anybody. More than that, they’ve beaten all the big boys they’ve faced so far. They’re 3-0 against teams from power conferences: these two tournament wins against Miami and Tennessee, plus a five-point win at Florida in December.
They’ve also lost to the likes of Milwaukee, Missouri State, Indiana State, and Bradley, because no Cinderella is perfect, or it wouldn’t be a Cinderella. But this team is good enough at enough things to keep shocking the world for another week or two.