When the at-large bids came to an end on the 11 line, the selection committee chose San Diego State and Loyola-Chicago as the top remaining automatic qualifiers. The Aztecs carry some recent tournament history. The Ramblers…well, if you’re like me, you didn’t even know Loyola-Chicago was the Ramblers before this year. Loyola did win the NCAA Tournament in 1963, one of four appearances for the decade. They next made the tournament in 1985. They next made the tournament this year.
So they may be relatively unknown, but they’re the best Cinderella on the dance floor. At 40th in KenPom, they’re an eight seed disguised as an eleven.
Do not overlook this team. But do not overrate them: they beat Florida in December and beat Miami yesterday, but Tennessee will be the best team on their schedule.
The Vols and Ramblers play at a similar pace, with Tennessee slightly faster (271st nationally; Loyola is 314th). Like Tennessee, Loyola distributes the ball well (24th nationally in assist percentage). But while Tennessee’s distribution leads to the muscle of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield (and often an offensive rebound or the free throw line), Loyola’s leads to high percentage, first-shot scoring.
The Ramblers are 15th nationally in three-point percentage and 13th in two-point percentage. Their threes are opportunity shots – only 35.8% of their attempts are from the arc, 215th in the country – but they take full advantage. Point guard Clayton Custer takes just over four threes per game, but shoots 46.2% from deep, 23rd nationally. Forward Donte Ingram shoots more often and hits 39.9%. Center Cameron Krutwig (6’9″ 260) is a high-percentage scorer inside, over 60% from the floor. And their most efficient scorer comes off the bench: forward Aundre Jackson averages 10.9 points in 19.1 minutes.
But if they don’t get it on the first attempt – and especially if Krutwig doesn’t get the rebound – Loyola doesn’t get it. The Ramblers are 331st nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (which is why they’re only 67th in offensive efficiency despite shooting so well). I haven’t seen them enough to know this for sure, but my assumption is their focus is on preventing transition and playing great defense. And they do that: the Ramblers are also 26th in defensive efficiency. They don’t foul, and they don’t block shots. But they will take it away, getting a steal on 10.1% of opponent possessions.
Loyola is 24-0 when shooting at least 45%, 5-5 when they don’t. Their lowest shooting percentage in those 24 victories was yesterday, 47.3%. This is the biggest question for this game: how much can Tennessee’s defense affect the great shooting Loyola is accustomed to?
The Vols are fifth nationally in defensive efficiency. The best defensive team Loyola has faced is Florida (19th). But they shot 52% against the Gators, including 10-of-12 for Aundre Jackson and 6-of-10 for Cameron Krutwig inside. They hit 6-of-12 from the arc. And they held Florida to 36.9% from the floor; the Gators had 15 more shot attempts thanks to 18 offensive rebounds, and only turned it over eight times, but simply could not convert.
Even without Wichita State, there are still some good defensive teams in the Missouri Valley: Evansville is 32nd in efficiency, Northern Iowa 60th. The Ramblers also played Wright State. Miami, 44th in defensive efficiency, gave up 47.3% from the floor to the Ramblers, out-shooting them from the floor and the arc. But they turned it over 16 times (and the loser of yesterday’s game was always going to kick themselves for missing five free throws).
Tennessee should represent the stiffest challenge for Loyola’s offense this year. But the Vols played a top five strength of schedule; Loyola’s offense should not be the stiffest challenge Tennessee’s defense has faced.
The Vols have played 13 offenses rated higher in efficiency than Loyola, including teams rated first (Villanova), second (Purdue), and fifth (North Carolina). For pure shooting, only Villanova and Purdue have been better than the Ramblers. But when you include the rebounding and free throw components, their numbers fall down the list. Tennessee held Purdue to 37% from the floor and the arc. Villanova was good, but not spectacular (46%) against Tennessee’s defense. The Vols have defended well enough against great offenses to feel confident they can do it again tomorrow.
And more good news for Tennessee: the Vols will also be the most efficient offense the Ramblers have faced all year.
Loyola is a good team accustomed to winning, and after yesterday I’m sure they’re feeling good. They are one of the best teams in the nation at scoring on their first shot. But if they don’t get it then, they don’t get it. And Tennessee will test them – on both ends of the floor – in ways they haven’t been tested yet.
Saturday, 6:10 PM ET, TNT. Atlanta awaits.