SportsPulse: Loyola-Chicago upset No. 3 Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament with another dramatic, last-second victory.
USA TODAY Sports
Mid-major Loyola-Chicago showed its mettle again versus a power conference team, and used its synergetic offense and top-five defense to pull off another last-second upset.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers’ 63-62 victory over SEC regular-season champion Tennessee proved coach Porter Moser’s team is no one-hit wonder. And closer inspection at Loyola shows this isn’t your typical Cinderella, either — buzzer-beaters aside. Similarly magical runs have been staged before — like when Florida Gulf Coast made the Sweet 16 in 2013 — but this team has more of a George Mason or VCU type of makeup and moxie.
And yes, those mid-major teams went to the Final Four. When the South Region was unveiled on Selection Sunday, it seemed inconceivable that Loyola-Chicago would be a Final Four contender. Even the school’s greatest fan, 98-year-old nun sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt had the Ramblers falling in the Sweet 16.
GAME STORY: Loyola-Chicago knocks out Tennessee
But now that No. 1 Virginia and No. 4 Arizona are gone, the bracket-busting pathway to San Antonio has become much clearer. Loyola will have its hands full with Cincinnati or Nevada. But consider this: No. 5 Kentucky lost to Tennessee twice and barely beat the Volunteers in the SEC title game. If that’s the most dangerous team left, Loyola’s odds aren’t bad.
Here’s a look at six difference-making areas of the game that make Loyola-Chicago’s repertoire much different than other Cinderellas that bottom out once they make it to the second weekend.
1. Floor-spacing, extra-passing offense. Moser has implemented mentor Rick Majerus’ potent offensive principles and he’s loaded his team with sharp-shooting guards who can thrive on perimeter spacing. “That’s by design,” Moser told USA TODAY Sports earlier in March. More than that, the unselfishness is what makes this team so special. The extra pass is harder to guard than any dribble-drive offense, and when it’s done right (Loyola does it to perfection), it’s aesthetically pleasing basketball. But it also cultivates great team chemistry and has everything to do with this team’s swagger in March. Somewhere, the late coach Majerus is smiling.
2. No superstars, ample clutch genes. Against Miami, it was senior guard Donte Ingram who drilled the game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key. Against Tennessee, it was junior guard Clayton Custer with the pull-up game-winning jumper. Buzzer-beaters and last-second victories can be perceived as lucky. That’s not the case here. It speaks to the team’s poise and composure in pressure situations — something many youth-laden squads still dancing don’t have.
3. An inside-outside-game. The X-Factor on this team is freshman big man Cameron Krutwig, a hard-nosed post presence who gives this team a backbone on defense against power teams and an interior threat to initiate a great inside-out game to free up guards along the perimeter. Krutwig is smooth around the basket, gives this team second-chance points and passes extremely well.
4. A top-5 defense. A gifted and well-disciplined offensive team, especially a mid-major, isn’t thought of to have a great defense, too. But keep in mind that the Ramblers rank fifth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 62 points a game to its opponents. It also limits other teams to 41% shooting. That defense was on display throughout a dominant Missouri Valley Conference season, and it proved to adjust just fine against high-flying, more athletic teams like Miami and Tennessee.
5. Balance that stretches to the bench. Loyola got 16 points from Aundre Jackson on Saturday against Tennessee, and usually gets 20 minutes of solid contribution from Lucas Williamson. This isn’t an incredibly deep bench, but it’s an effective one that flows perfectly with the starters’ momentum and doesn’t skip a beat. And the balance cannot be emphasized enough. Every game, one of six different players can lead the team in scoring. The key: It doesn’t matter who it is to this group.
6. A passionate, smart coach. Moser’s fiery demeanor can be displayed with his coat-throwing sidelines antics, and his passionate, determined leadership of this group fuels the winning culture of the program. But Moser’s play-calling and intuitiveness have been a key ingredient in both NCAA tournament victories — whether out of timeouts or in crunch-time, need-a-basket situations.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NCAA TOURNAMENT’S SECOND ROUND