It feels weird to say it, but this Loyola team is better than the one that went to the Final Four in 2018. By a lot. The Ramblers have become the most consistent program in the Missouri Valley over the past five years, winning at least 18 games in each and winning 20-or-more in the last four. Now, Loyola has gone from “excellent mid-major who went on a great run” to one of the nation’s elite. Led by MVC defensive player of the year Lucas Williamson, the Ramblers are the second-best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom, and have not allowed a team to score more than 58 points since Jan. 10. Cameron Krutwig is putting up numbers that suggest he is one of the best players in Division I, and as a team, they run a slow-paced, ruthlessly efficient offense. Krutwig is the team’s only double-digit scorer, but Loyola is balanced enough that it doesn’t matter. The Ramblers have six players behind him who average between 7.0 and 7.9 points per game and five players shooting at least 34 percent from three. And nobody plays more than 29.6 minutes per game. Porter Moser can go 10 deep and he does so regularly. Loyola wrapped up its regular season at 21-4, though it was a little shaky down the stretch. But, true to form, Loyola’s defense saved it from any bad losses while the offense struggled.
Missouri Valley Player of the Year Cameron Krutwig made his name during the 2018 Final Four run, but if you haven’t seen him play since, he has taken his game up a few levels. Krutwig, who ranks fifth in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, is not just your typical big man. Yes, he has the size and does everything you need in the post. In fact, looking at the team’s numbers, you can see the impact he has: Loyola ranks fourth in the nation in two-point percentage (58.7%) and seventh in opponent offensive rebound percentage (21.3%). Krutwig also has nearly half the team’s total blocked shots and leads the squad in rebounds per game. That’s all to be expected. What sets Krutwig apart is that he’s an excellent all-around player — and not just for someone who is 6’9, 255 pounds. Somehow, Krutwig has evolved into one of the best passers in the country, able to kick it out of the post, find the cutting guard, or fire an outlet pass to start the break with ease. The center leads the team in total assists (71) and seems to make more SportsCenter highlights for his great finds than anything else. Krutwig has been a consistent star since that run his freshman year and will have his name forever in the MVC record books.
Just about every available metric says Loyola is one of the best teams in the country, no matter what seed number is next to their name. The Ramblers are 11 in KenPom, 20 in Torvik, and 18 in the NET. Those rankings are all either efficiency based or take efficiency numbers into account, and Loyola is top-20 despite their struggles down the stretch. The reason? There’s simply no way to score on them, while they can beat you in a number of ways. Williamson, a wing, led the team in steals en route to MVC Defensive Player of the Year honors while leading the conference in steal percentage (3.7). He’s the shut-down guy that will be assigned to the other team’s best player. As a team, the Ramblers limit possessions and force their opponents into lower percentage looks. They also don’t foul. On the other end, everyone who plays minutes can score. No one who plays minutes really hurts the team by stepping outside of their game. Krutwig, who gets the most shot attempts, shoots 58 percent from the field, while Keith Clemons is a 44 percent three-point shooter. Marquise Kennedy, the 6’1 sophomore guard, is just about automatic from the free throw line and is better than 60 percent from close range. This is one of the most versatile teams in the country, and game-planning for the Ramblers can’t possibly be as simple as shutting down one or two players. The group is experienced, doesn’t beat itself, and has a coach in Moser that has quickly become one of the most respected in mid-major basketball.
Normally, fans make too much of mid-majors not getting challenged during the regular season. The myth that it matters went out the window with Gonzaga’s recent run of tournament success. It’s still a little concerning in Loyola’s case. This isn’t like Gonzaga, who loads up in the non-conference and still gets a couple good games in WCC play. Loyola has just one Quad 1 win, and that was against a Drake team that finds itself on the bubble. After that win on Feb. 13, the Ramblers lost to the Bulldogs then struggled to beat Valparaiso and Southern Illinois twice — all three of those games are classified as Quad 4. Over their last four games, Loyola has failed to score more than 0.95 points per possession three times, and by playing low-possession games, this is not a team that can beat good teams without solid efficiency numbers. The Ramblers are a safe bet to win their first-round game, but their second-round opponent will likely be a 1, 2, or 3 seed, making them the best team Loyola has faced all season. But again: an entire season’s worth of data suggests that Loyola can beat the traditional powers. A so-so stretch from the Ramblers, where they still beat the bad teams anyway, shouldn’t change that, especially considering this team is anchored by two players with Final Four experience in Krutwig and Williamson. This is a second weekend team.