Loyola-Chicago always fit the profile of a Cinderella. The Ramblers didn’t back their way into the NCAA tournament by stealing a bid in the MVC — they dominated the league all year and had a good case for an at-large berth if they somehow lost in the conference tournament.
Loyola didn’t lose in the conference tournament, punching their ticket to the NCAAs for the first time since 1985 with a win over Illinois State March 4. The Ramblers were given a No. 11 seed in March and a first-round matchup against Miami.
Two weeks later, Loyola became the first mid-major to breakthrough to the Sweet 16.
Even as six teams seeded No. 7 or lower have crashed the second weekend, Loyola exists as the one true Cinderella. This isn’t the case of a middling ACC (Florida State, Syracuse) or Big 12 (Kansas State) team getting hot at the right time and lucky with matchups. This is a legitimately good team from the Missouri Valley establishing a blueprint for how true mid-majors can compete with bigger, wealthier programs.
Loyola saw an opportunity when Wichita State jumped to the American Athletic Conference this year. The Shockers had won the MVC four straight years — or every season since Creighton departed for the Big East. The MVC needed a new ruler. Loyola has positioned itself as just that.
The Ramblers won the league by four games in the regular season. It beat top-five Florida on the road. Three of its five losses happened when conference player of the year Clayton Custer was out with an injury. Their RPI is top-30 in the country and they’re ranked ahead of Syracuse and K-State on KenPom.
So how has Loyola done this?
Porter Moser’s first great year at Loyola came in 2015, when the Ramblers won 24 games and claimed the title at the CBI. Two starters from this year’s team were freshmen on that squad, slowly laying the groundwork for what would be the program’s best run in three decades.
Loyola did not build this team overnight. Mid-majors never do. Moser took transfers from high-major programs who weren’t getting playing time. He took transfers from low-major programs who wanted a greater opportunity. He took a JUCO forward and a guard from Croatia. He recruited Chicago powerhouses Simeon and Whitney Young, and reached into the suburbs to find a true freshman center.
This team is the realization of a long, slow burn.
Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson were the two freshmen in the rotation for the group that won the CBI. Ingram was a teammate of Jabari Parker’s at Simeon, where he helped the school win a state title as a junior. For Loyola, Ingram was a legacy recruit. His older brother DaJuan Gouard played for the Ramblers from 2001-05, going from a bit contributor to the team’s second leading scorer as a senior.
Ingram has followed a similar path of steady improvement, also finishing second on the team in scoring this year as a senior. He gives Loyola a strong 6’6 wing who can rebound and defend while hitting 40 percent of his three-pointers. It was Ingram who sealed Loyola’s first upset of this tournament, draining a deep three at the buzzer to beat Miami in the opening round.
RAMBLERS WITH THE LAST SECOND THREE! #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/lNQlJtrq7o— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 15, 2018
Richardson is a 6’3 shooter from Overland Park, Kansas. He’s been a quality role player for the Ramblers for years, but his biggest contribution to the program came when he helped recruit a childhood friend.
Richardson had been teammates with Clayton Custer since third grade. Custer was a big deal as a recruit, ranking as a top-100 prospect on Rivals and signing on to play for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State. The only problem was who Custer had ahead of him in Ames. That would be Monte Morris, one of the great point guards to pass through the Big 12 this decade. Frustrated with a lack of playing time, Custer and Richardson started talking about a visit to Loyola.
Three years later, Custer is the conference player of the year. He’s an ultra-efficient scorer at point guard who posted a 65.4 percent true shooting percentage this year — good for No. 33 in the country. Custer is a knockdown shooter and heady floor general, finishing the year with a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
It was Custer who got the Ramblers to the second weekend of this tournament, hitting a go-ahead jumper to stun Tennessee in the final seconds:
RAMBLERS WIN!!!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 18, 2018
CINDERELLA LIVES ON!#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/ynhEMDNAGs
With Custer installed at lead guard and Ingram entrenched as a forward, Moser sought to surround them with as many three-and-D style wings as possible.
Marques Townes played high school ball with Karl Towns and Wade Baldwin in New Jersey. He started his collegiate career at Farleigh Dickinson before transferring to Loyola after his freshman season. He gives the Ramblers a 6’4 perimeter player who shoots 37 percent from three and holds his own defensively.
Aundre Jackson is a senior who came to Loyola as a JUCO transfer. Jackson doesn’t start, but he makes the most of his minutes. He led the team in usage rate this season and scored a game-high 16 points in the win over Tennessee. At 6’5, 230 pounds, he’s another strong wing who can defend and will take a three-pointer (19 makes at 35 percent) if he’s left open.
Lucas Williamson is another Chicago public league product. He helped Jahlil Okafor’s Whitney Young team to a state title in 2014 and became one of the best players in the area as a senior. Despite playing for a prestige high school program and grassroots team (the EYBL’s Meanstreets), Williamson was strangely under-recruited. He didn’t commit to Loyola until April, but he’s been an immediate contributor as a true freshman, giving Moser a 6’4 wing who can shoot (45 percent from three) and defend.
Moser’s biggest high school recruit might be his center. That’s Cameron Krutwig, a 6’9, 250-pound big man from suburban Jacobs. Krutwig lacked the athleticism to be a high major recruit, but he’s a brilliant passer with soft touch around the rim. Most MVC schools don’t have centers this big or this skilled, but Loyola was able to pull one from its home turf.
Loyola might be a little undersized on the perimeter and lack some explosiveness inside, but Moser has taken a decidedly modern approach to building this roster. Ingram, Townes, Jackson, and Williamson give Loyola four quality three-and-D wings. Custer is a star at point guard. Krutwig already feels like an emerging star at center.
Moser patched together this roster through as many different avenues as possible, but each player fits Loyola’s identity. It’s a defense-first team with shooting and strong point guard play. That’s a recipe for success at any level of the game.
If Moser sticks around, Loyola could be primed for a long stay at the top of the MVC. Loyola might be a true Cinderella, but its success is no accident.