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Cinderella No More: Loyola-Chicago Is a Final Four Threat Once Again

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2021

Loyola of Chicago players celebrate after beating Illinois in a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Sunday, March 21, 2021. Loyola upset Illinois 71-58. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The 2020-21 Loyola of Chicago Ramblers had no business being a No. 8 seed.

Within moments of the final buzzer sounding on a dominant 71-58 victory over No. 1 seed Illinois, the word "Cinderella" had already been uttered multiple times by announcers and studio analysts alike.

But this time around, the glass slipper simply doesn't fit.

The Ramblers went 21-4 during the regular season, steamrolling their way through the Missouri Valley Conference and winning their three conference tournament games by a combined 50 points to secure an automatic bid.

The most recent AP poll, released on March 15, shows Loyola-Chicago at No. 17 ahead of the likes of Villanova, Creighton, Purdue, Texas Tech, Colorado, BYU, USC and Virginia Tech.

All of those teams were seeded higher than the Ramblers—some by as many as four seed lines.

Simple math says the No. 17 team in the nation should be a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, and while the selection committee does not adhere to the AP poll by any means, a disparity of three seed lines is still a bit of a head-scratcher.

The KenPom rankings paint an even clearer picture of just how good this Ramblers team has been.

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They rank No. 7 overall, behind only Gonzaga, Michigan, Houston, Baylor, Illinois and Iowa, and lay claim to the No. 1 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency.

That pesky defense was on full display Sunday.

The Illini turned the ball over 17 times, six of which came from All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu, and they never found any sort of rhythm aside from a solid two-minute stretch to close out the first half. The 58 points scored by Illinois were its lowest point total of the season.

Meanwhile, with a patient half-court attack and the versatility of big man Cameron Krutwig, the Ramblers put on a clinic on the offensive end.

They shot 51 percent from the floor, a mark exceeded by only three teams against the Illini defense this season, and they found easy basket after easy basket late in the shot clock.

It all starts with Krutwig.

Cameron Krutwig
Cameron KrutwigPaul Sancya/Associated Press

The Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and a holdover from the 2018 Final Four team when he started as a true freshman, he filled up the box score with 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Beyond the counting stats, his ability to play on the perimeter and run the offense pulled Kofi Cockburn out of the paint, opening things up underneath offensively.

And while the 6'9" senior center was the focal point Sunday, this is far from a one-dimensional attack.

Senior guard Lucas Williamson averages a modest 8.6 points per game, but he dropped a season-high 21 on 8-of-13 shooting against Georgia Tech in their opening-round win. The MVC Defensive Player of the Year is another holdover from the 2018 squad.

Guards Braden Norris (8.4 PPG, 52 3PT, 40.9 3PT%) and Keith Clemons (38 3PT, 45.8 3PT%) are both knockdown shooters from the outside, and Norris leads the team with 3.1 assists per game as the starting point guard.

Even when Krutwig needs a breather, the team can turn to 6'10" freshman Jacob Hutson, who has played his way into the rotation as the season has progressed. He tallied five points, two rebounds and one block in seven minutes of action Sunday.

There is no future lottery pick or 5-star recruit on this roster.

It's just a deep, talented, fundamentally sound team that has fully bought into the philosophy of head coach Porter Moser. They executed a well-crafted game plan to a T on Sunday to send a really good Illinois team packing in lopsided fashion.

So save the Cinderella talk for teams like North Texas and Oral Roberts.

This Loyola-Chicago squad is a bona fide Final Four threat, and it has been since before the NCAA tournament ever began.

     

All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.

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