The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Loyola Chicago doesn’t need divine intervention to reach the Final Four

Loyola-Chicago guard Marques Townes and the Ramblers are one win from the Final Four. (John Amis/Associated Press)

Loyola Chicago was a Cinderella pick before the start of March Madness, but confidence in the upstart waned once the team made it past the round of 32: Even Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt (the squad’s chaplain) bounced Loyola in its Sweet 16 matchup, and yet the Ramblers are still dancing. So how to explain an 11-seed fueling March Madness? By examining the stunning efficiency at which Loyola’s offense is operating.

Loyola Chicago, Kansas State and Florida State pull off upsets; Michigan’s title hopes soar

The team, which already played at a glacial pace (roughly 65 possessions in Missouri Valley play), has significantly scaled back, using only 61 possessions per game through the Sweet 16. What separates the Ramblers from other slow-paced teams in the field, though, is that the squad is assisting on 66 percent of its field goals. The team’s assist rate (60 percent) already ranked 24th in Division I in 2018. That sort of enhanced ball movement explains why Loyola has still been able to score 1.07 points per possession (including an effective field goal percentage of 58 percent) against top-tier defenses.

Loyola’s offensive coupling of uber efficiency with a “plus-one” pass mentality has also transformed the type of shots that the Ramblers have attempted. Per shot charts culled from ESPN’s play-by-play data, the team has attempted just nine field goals outside the paint or in the midrange. The other 142 field goals the team has taken have either been beyond the arc (of which Loyola is converting 39 percent) or at the rim. What’s even more impressive is how wide open Loyola’s attempts are: Per Synergy Sports, nearly 40 percent of the team’s shots are unguarded three-point field goals, of which the Ramblers are converting 52 percent. That sort of shooting excellence is illustrative of Loyola’s transcendent ball movement, and enhanced by the lineup versatility that coach Porter Moser has at his disposal.

Loyola thrives when spacing the half court, and its lineups are built to probe the perimeter for driving lanes and attacking openings, either finding a Rambler waiting for a dump-down pass, a player cutting through the lane or an open shooter from deep. Plus, Loyola forces its opponents to guard on an island. Only a handful of teams remaining in the tournament are quick enough to help defend and then recover — but those squads are on the other side of the bracket.

Loyola’s Sister Jean continues to own March Madness

Loyola is equally brilliant defensively. The team’s core defensive strategy is to prevent any easy buckets, trading offensive rebounding (a rate of just 22 percent in 2018) to hustle back to defend. Per, Loyola’s effective field goal rate against (50.4 percent) ranks 40th in Division I. When an opponent does set up its half-court offense, the Ramblers often switch most ball screens, and the team is quick enough to help defend those iso drives while still getting back to their own man and closing out on any perimeter attempts.

The latest from March Madness 2018

According to Bart Torvik’s predictive model, which compares current NCAA tournament teams to prior competitors with similar resumes, Loyola stacks up well, matching up with the Syracuse squad that made the 2016 Final Four. Of course, there is also a smattering of teams that only danced until the round of 32, but to compare that favorably to a squad with a Final Four pedigree is unique. Of the teams remaining in either the South and West regions (which includes the Wildcats, Michigan, and Florida State), only the Wolverines also match with a Final Four squad (Florida 2014).

Team Seed Tournament result
2018 Loyola Chicago 11 TBD
2011 Texas A&M 7 Lost in round-of-64
2010 Richmond 7 Lost in round-of-64
2017 Northwestern 8 Lost in round-of-32
2016 Cincinnati 9 Lost in round-of-64
2017 Miami FL 8 Lost in round-of-64
2010 Old Dominion 11 Lost in round-of-32
2016 Syracuse 10 Lost in Final Four
2017 Middle Tennessee 12 Lost in round-of-32
2011 USC 11 Lost First Four game
2010 Pittsburgh 3 Lost in round-of-32

Loyola’s next opponent, Kansas State, uses brute force to disrupt game flow. If the team isn’t fouling opponents (38.2 percent free throw rate in the tournament), Bruce Weber’s squad is forcing a turnover (a 24 percent turnover rate during the same time period). That strategy, though, could prove difficult against Loyola, a team that employs four to five ballhandlers at a time and relies so heavily on ball movement to generate its open looks.

Should Loyola reach the Final Four, its matchups could be more challenging. While Florida State is deep and lengthy, the Seminoles struggle defending in space, and several of the team’s losses this season have been to squads that pair ball movement with multiple ballhandlers (Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia are just a few examples). But should Loyola face Michigan, the Ramblers’ miracle season could end.

In terms of offensive execution and spacing, there are few teams as similar to Loyola as Michigan. John Beilein’s squad is adept at spreading the floor and attacking off the bounce and from the perimeter. In its Sweet 16 win against Texas A&M, the squad dropped a stunning 1.4 points per possession. And this isn’t a typical Wolverine squad. This is the stingiest defense (0.9 points allowed per possession) Beilein has ever coached at Michigan, with one-on-one defensive brilliance and a scheme that funnels ballhandlers to the middle of the court.

Michigan could be the ultimate test to whether Loyola is a team destined to crack a title game and, in the process, achieve the most shocking March stunner since Villanova 33 years ago.

More college basketball:

Jenkins: The secret to buzzer-beaters? It’s all in the (mental) release

Round-by-round odds: Loyola Chicago keeps dancing but Duke remains team to beat

The Syracuse March Madness forecast: Cold, scoring in the 50s

Brunson vs. Carter is a classic Sweet 16 matchup with roots in junior high

Isaac Haas gets assist from Purdue engineering students, but he’s still unlikely to play

Defiant and wounded, Rick Pitino insists he did nothing wrong — and wants back in

Blackistone: What did the Game of Change really change in Mississippi? Not much.

Take a tour of Loyola Chicago, which wasn’t a sports school until last week