The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the South Regional champions: the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. Let’s do this!
The Ramblers are defined by balance, passing and efficiency. The lore of this Cinderella squad has almost masked the fact that this Loyola team is actually really talented. The Ramblers are currently riding a 14-game winning streak into the Final Four and as Sister Jean herself said, San Antonio better watch out.
Loyola lacks a truly dominant scoring threat on offense, but has five different players that average over 10 points per game. Their leading scorer, Clayton Custer, only averages 13.2 points per game, but shoots 52.7 percent from the field and 45.4 percent from three. As a team, Loyola shoots 50.9 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
What differentiates Loyola from their competition is how they play as a team. If any team in the nation could be classified as unselfish, it is these Ramblers. They average 15.9 assists per game and are always looking for the extra pass. 6-foot-9 freshman center Cameron Krutwig is critical to their offense in this sense. Krutwig has fantastic vision when he gets the ball in the high post and has a knack to finding cutting teammates on the baseline or on the wing.
This selfless play enhances Loyola’s offensive versatility. In all four of their tournament games, the Ramblers had a different leading scorer. Their four-guard lineup allows coach Porter Moser to space the floor and create mismatches on the wing.
Passing is great on offense, but meaningless passing can actually hurt a team’s offensive rhythm. Proper, purposeful passing can lead to unhinging a defense and getting open looks at the basket. Loyola can dissect a team’s half-court defense better than any of the three remaining teams through its inside-out passing attack. Loyola’s passing and basketball IQ led to them not shooting below 47 percent from the field in any of their four tournament games.
To top it all off, Loyola is clutch. They hit three game-winning shots with under seven seconds to go in the first three rounds. The even more crazy part about that is that a different player hit each shot. Donte Ingram hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer from NBA range to sink Miami 64-62. Clayton Custer’s jump shot, that seemed to touch every part of the rim, with less than five seconds left, knocked off Tennessee. Marques Townes hit a dagger 3-pointer with six seconds to end Nevada’s run in the Sweet 16.
It is difficult to highlight a single player on this Loyola team, but Clayton Custer can do it all. Custer has shown that he can light it up from the field when he is hot. Custer led Loyola in scoring in their 64-62 win over Miami with 14 points and scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in their 69-68 win over Nevada.
One area of concern for Moser’s crew could be lack of efficiency. Loyola is not a team that throws up a high volume of shots per game as they only average 49.5 shots per game. Loyola utilizes this to their advantage due to their ability to make a high volume of these attempts. But this style of play leaves little room for error. The Ramblers cannot afford an off day from the field against any of the three remaining teams.
Loyola is primarily known for their lockdown defense. The Ramblers rank 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They tend to exclusively play man-to-man and are content to sit in the half court rather than apply full-court pressure.
However, they have actually struggled to contain teams from the field throughout the NCAA Tournament. Miami shot 51 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three against Loyola. To continue this trend, Loyola’s opponents have actually shot 42.5 percent from the field this tournament against them. Aside from Loyola’s exquisite all-around performance against Kansas State where they held the Wildcats to 34.8 percent, Loyola’s opponents all hit more than 40 percent from the field.
However, it is worth noting that Loyola is a pack line defensive team. What this means is that the Ramblers will sacrifice crashing the offensive glass in favor of falling back on defense. This prevents opposing teams from getting out on the break and attacking Loyola before their half-court defense is set.
One potential problem that looms large for Loyola in their matchup against Michigan is defending on and off ball screens. Loyola’s versatility allows them to switch at will against screens, whether they are on or off ball. Coach John Beilein of Michigan runs his offense through screening, so Loyola’s communication will be critical to slowing down this attack.
How Moser plans on slowing down Moritz Wagner is another issue in itself. Cameron Krutwig is not as athletic or quick as Wagner and will struggle defending him on the perimeter. Wagner is at his best when he creates these mismatches and can take advantage of slower defenders with his quickness and skill. Keep an eye on that matchup.
Ben Richardson: Richardson showed the world what he is capable of doing in Loyola’s 78-62 demolition of Kansas State. Richardson rained in 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and 6-for-7 shooting from 3-point range. Richardson also grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists in that victory as well. This was arguably the best performance from an individual player on Loyola throughout the tournament.
Before that offensive eruption, Richardson was averaging a mere 4.7 points per game in the tournament. If Richardson can find a way to contribute in a similar manner to his performance against Kansas State, Loyola will have another incredibly dangerous offensive weapon at their disposal.
Shot efficiency: Michigan is no slouch defensively. The Wolverines rank fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They have three stifling on-ball defenders in Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Their man-to-man defensive pressure will be a unique challenge to Loyola’s offense.
Loyola’s offense is predicated on ball movement and efficiency from the field. However, if they cannot break down this Wolverine defense the way they have been able to do against every other team they have faced, their shots may not fall. Loyola’s game provides them with little margin for error. If the Ramblers want to play Monday night, they need to hit outside shots and keep their efficiency high.
If you think Loyola is here completely due to luck, you are wrong. This Rambler team is dangerous on both sides of the ball. They feed off of their defense and have the ability to break down any opposing defense in the nation. However, the remaining teams are bigger and more athletic than what Loyola is used to seeing. Does Sister Jean’s darling squad have anymore upsets left? We cannot wait to find out.
Featured image by Lukas Keapproth.
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