There’s a true Cinderella in the Final Four. Loyola-Chicago, champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, have crashed San Antonio by winning the South Regional.
As a No. 11 seed, Loyola ties the record for the lowest seed to ever reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 were the other No. 11 seeds to make the Final Four. None of those teams were able to reach the title game. Can Loyola break the trend?
At this point, it’s tough to doubt the Ramblers. Loyola truly feels like a team of destiny, advancing through the bracket on a series of game-winners before absolutely dominating Kansas State in the Elite Eight.
The Ramblers are balanced. The defense has held Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State each to under 70 points across their four wins. The offense is versatile enough to win grind-it-out games in the first two rounds and up-tempo games in the second weekend. Loyola puts four or five shooters on the floor at all times, and those shooters have been hot throughout the tournament.
Maybe Loyola was fortunate to see the top four teams in their region all fail to reach the second weekend, but this run is no fluke. The Ramblers are legitimately awesome. This is how Loyola got here.
Loyola was pretty great in the regular season, too
Loyola enters the Final Four at 32-5. It hasn’t lost since January, riding a 14-game winning streak into San Antonio.
The Ramblers first gained attention when they beat No. 5 Florida on the road back on Dec. 6. Loyola kept rolling all the way through conference play, winning the Missouri Valley by four games in the league’s first year without former king Wichita State (who moved to the American).
Point guard Clayton Custer — once recruited by Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State — was named MVC Player of the Year after averaging 13.4 points and 4.2 assists per game. Three of Loyola’s five losses came when he was injured.
What’s incredible to think about now is that Loyola wouldn’t have even been in the field without winning the MVC conference tournament. Of course, they did exactly that, punching their ticket to the dance with a win over Illinois State on March 4.
Loyola hit three game-winners for its first three tournament wins
Loyola was a trendy pick to upset Miami in the 6-11 first round matchup. The game came down to the wire, and was won when Donte Ingram hit a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to give Loyola the win:
The Tennessee game in the round of 32 was every bit as tough. The Ramblers hung around late and won in the final seconds when Custer got this miracle bounce to put Loyola into the second weekend:
Loyola was in control for most of its Sweet 16 matchup against Nevada, leading by 10 with 10 minutes left. Of course, Nevada would mount another comeback, just as they did in erasing a 14-point lead vs. Texas and a 22-point lead vs. Cincinnati.
The Wolf Pack did not have enough to complete the comeback vs. Loyola. Marques Towns hit this dagger in the final seconds to seal the win for Loyola:
The Ramblers didn’t need dramatics in the Elite Eight, torching Kansas State in a 78-62 victory thanks to a sublime offensive performance.
Sister Jean is a national star
Excuse me, international star!
Sister Jean on becoming a national sensation: “Really, if I can correct you, international.” pic.twitter.com/JQP2Rj0P8S— Lauren Comitor (@laurencomitor) March 18, 2018
The 98-year-old, scouting report-writing nun is the new American sweetheart. We can watch Sister Jean interviews all day.
Even Obama loves her:
Congrats to @LoyolaChicago and Sister Jean for a last-second upset - I had faith in my pick!— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) March 15, 2018
Our favorite Sister Jean storyline is that she had Loyola out in the Sweet 16. Sorry to bust your bracket, sister.
So who are these guys?
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.
Custer is the star at point guard. There are a bunch of quality wings next to him, led by Ingram, Townes, Aundre Jackson and Lucas Williamson. Senior shooting guard Ben Richardson — who started playing with Custer in third grade back in Overland, Kansas — was the star in the Elite Eight by hitting 6-of-7 threes to finish with 23 points.
There’s also freshman center Cam Krutwig on the inside, who just about everyone loves.
So, can Loyola keep winning?
Why not? Michigan is awesome, but the Wolverines don’t exactly have five-star recruits or NBA prospects up and down the roster. A potential national title game against Duke or Villanova would seem like an impossible matchup, but Sister Jean’s prayers haven’t failed yet.
Loyola is one of the great Cinderellas in NCAA tournament history. They might not be done yet.