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Does Loyola Have a Chance to Win the NCAA Tournament?

They’re a sweet-shooting team, but Michigan’s “defensive coordinator"—a former Joliet West history teacher named Luke Yaklich—will make things tough for the Cinderella.

The odds that Cameron Krutwig will cut down the final net are low, but Loyola’s been beating them—and as a freshman, he’ll have even more chances.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Ken Pomeroy tracks a whole mess of useful statistics on his eponymous college basketball website, KenPom.com. One of them is “home court advantage.” If you’re interested in parsing the gory details, Pomeroy shows his work in some detail here. At its heart, though, the figure tries to approximate the degree to which past home-scoring advantage, over a wide window of six seasons, “predicts future home-scoring advantage.” The list is long; it includes all 351 Division-1 men’s basketball programs. Earlier this week, I clicked and scrolled down, and then scrolled some more, and then scrolled even further. Eventually, I hit “Loyola Chicago,” ranked 258th in the country.

When it comes to in-house intimidation, the Ramblers—Final Four bound for the first time in 55 years—sit one spot ahead of UIC and six spots below DePaul.

Most winters, my hoops-obsessed pals and I count ourselves among the few who make an appearance at Gentile Arena, where attendance averaged 2,405 per game this season. (Senior Night, in February, was Loyola’s first sell-out since 2003.) The gym is cozy, the beer is cold, and great seats are rarely difficult to find. It’s this anonymity, even locally, that’s made Loyola’s rampaging run through the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament so thrilling and surreal. At The Athletic, Jon Greenberg called it “the miracle almost no one asked for.” A true mid-major has materialized out of thin air solely to delight us, a satisfying answer to Sister Jean’s many prayers.

Through its first four games, the Ramblers have done what they were always capable of doing, replicating their regular-season recipe despite facing sturdier opponents under brighter lights. On defense, they’ve held their ground, sagging back to prevent easy buckets in transition and then switching ball screens fluidly in their own half-court. Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, and Kansas State shot a combined 29 percent from the three-point line and assisted on just 44 percent of their made baskets. None of them got easy points at the charity stripe, either; Loyola has only allowed 11 free throw attempts per contest, on average. By advanced metrics, the Ramblers have ranked as one of the 20 best defensive teams nationally all season. This was no fluke.

Where they’ve really shined in March is on the offensive end. Loyola’s effective field goal rate in the NCAA tournament is a massive 60.1 percent, an improvement on their already gaudy season-long shooting accuracy. Always looking for the extra pass, they’ve assisted on two-thirds of those made baskets, too. The coaching staff dub it “the domino,” the dysfunction they can sow when all five players—short, yes, but agile and intelligent—make quick decisions and crisp side-to-side passes. “The idea,” Ramblers assistant coach Matt Gordon told Brian Hamilton, “is how do you start to get them scrambled?”

Culling Synergy Sports logs for the Washington Post, Matt Giles found that nearly 40 percent of the Rambler’s shots are unguarded three-point field goals. That’s madness. Defenders must subsequently cheat, opening up clean looks down low for screeners or cutters. The burly freshman Cameron Krutwig has converted on 56 percent of his bunnies inside the arc. In selective minutes, senior Aundre Jackson has ripped through the tournament, knocking down 19 of his 29 two-point tries.

Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber knows a thing or two about perimeter-oriented offenses. “We let them do whatever they wanted offensively,” he said on Saturday, after enduring a 16-point drubbing. “Sometimes, it’s a clinic how they play.”

As a group, Loyola has spaced the floor, executed ruthlessly, hit several dramatic and timely threes, and answered every challenge. There have been no lapses. Even as an 11-seed, they’ve proven they belong.

Despite it all, if you take stock in FiveThirtyEight’s predictive algorithm, Loyola’s chances of winning twice in San Antonio sit at 7 percent (the same method gives them a 31 percent chance of winning Saturday). That’s not nothing, to be sure; in pre-tournament futures markets, Las Vegas gave the Ramblers a 2 percent chance to advance this far, and they bucked those odds. But it’s a tall order, even for the most blessed team remaining in the field.

Standing between Loyola and their date with destiny is the University of Michigan, who they’ll battle on Saturday evening in the national semifinal. It should be an excellent and entertaining affair, starring the country’s two hottest teams (14 straights wins for Loyola, 13 for Michigan), and two clubs whose styles of play are comparable and appealing. (I won’t feign objectivity here: I’m a Michigan grad and a serious UM basketball fan.)

The tournament has been an odd one for the Wolverine faithful, at times grinding, glorious, and stroke-inducing. They escaped the round of 32 on an emphatic Jordan Poole buzzer-beater, then proceeded to dismantle Texas A&M, only to turn around two days later and nearly blow an Elite 8 game in which they were favored, missing 18 of 22 heaves from behind the arc.

All tournament, and all season before that, they’ve leaned hard on their defense, climbing to fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency, 33 spots above their previous high under head coach John Beilein. For this, Wolverine fans owe a debt to “defensive coordinator” Luke Yaklich, a new hire from Illinois State who was teaching history at Joliet West five years ago, and who now builds scouting reports for every opponent and calls out assignments from the bench in real time. (It’s a neat story, told well by both Brendan Quinn and Jeff Eisenberg.) In their last four games, Michigan has allowed a measly .88 points per possession. Point guard Zavier Simpson hounds ball-handlers up top and a slew of under-recruited veterans stifle shooters behind him. Because of the sophisticated sets Beilein runs, Michigan is also a challenging team to prepare for, especially on short notice; no program in America—not Kansas, Kentucky, or Duke—has won more NCAA tournament games since 2013. (I warned you I was biased!)

Possessions will be few and far between on Saturday. So will transition opportunities and foul shots. Loyola is the better shooting team, if they can free themselves up. Both Yaklich and his colleague, DeAndre Haynes, coached in the Missouri Valley last season, which might give the Wolverines a leg up while game-planning. If I’m Porter Moser, I’d be concerned with Michigan’s length and versatility. The Ramblers can throw bodies at most of Michigan’s wings, but they don’t really have an answer for 6’11” center Moe Wagner, should the gangly German find his stroke. Pomeroy predicts a 65-60 UM victory, a number that seems reasonable but certainly doesn’t take into account divine intervention.

Should Loyola slip by, they’d take on either Kansas or Villanova in the title game, two one-seeds from the other side of the bracket. The former is the school Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson grew up idolizing, the latter an offensive juggernaut run by Stephenson grad Jalen Brunson. Take your pick of intriguing storylines.

And whatever happens this weekend, the Ramblers will return four of the top seven players from their current rotation next season, including Custer, the reigning conference player of the year. Come November, tickets at Gentile Arena might finally be tricky to come by.

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