Tag Archives: Final Four

A Season of Dreams Come True

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four.

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four. @zoegalland/via Twitter

This is the column I’ve been dreading having to write since a day or two before Loyola’s first NCAA Tournament game, nearly three weeks ago. Yes, of course I enjoyed every game, and most of the time between the games in Loyola’s amazing 2018 NCAA Tournament run. But I knew there was something like a 99-point-something chance the Ramblers would lose at some point in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And that it would be the end of a dream-come-true season for me, the most enjoyable season by far in my nearly 30 years of following Loyola hoops. And I would have to write about it.

The dreaded task of writing the obituary of the season; it would mean saying farewell to some great players, with endearing personalities I’ve come to know and admire. It would mean acknowledging the end of a season of wonder that smashed so many stubborn negative streaks and stereotypes that have held Loyola basketball back. Now I would have to instead wonder if Loyola could build on success, and how to help bring the conference up as well. And having it end suddenly, with an ignominious loss to an over-seeded Power Five program in the first or second round was going to be hard.

But time after time, the Ramblers pulled out inspiring victories against teams few thought they could beat, putting off the inevitable task until Loyola was in the Final Four. THE FINAL FOUR!

Put it in perspective… Loyola was picked to finish third in the MVC, a conference that almost everyone agreed would likely be a one-bid league after Wichita State’s exit. And even that seemed like a stretch for a lot of observers; this was a team that had never finished above .500 in the MVC, hadn’t had a winning conference season since 2007, and was 64 games under .500 in conference play over the past 10 years. Coach Porter Moser hadn’t had a winning season in conference as a head coach since guiding Arkansas-Little Rock to an 8-6 mark in 2003.

Even after the season got rolling and the Ramblers beat #5 Florida on the road, there were still question marks and setbacks. A blowout loss at Boise State was ugly and sobering. Custer and Richardson were lost to injury for a combined 15 games. A loss at Milwaukee and a home loss to Indiana State all but assured Loyola would have to win the MVC Tournament to get to the Big Dance.

On the morning of January 4, 2018, Loyola was 11-4 overall, and 1-2 in conference—with the next two games on the road against the two most recently successful programs in the MVC. Yes, there was the win at Florida, but the Gators had dropped out of the AP Top 25 by New Year’s Day. And Loyola’s second-best win at that point was a home W over Wright State.

The next game against UNI was the return of Clayton Custer from his ankle injury suffered against Florida. And from there, Loyola won 14 of their next 15 games to finish the regular season at 15-3. It was their first regular season conference championship since 1987. After beating UNI, Bradley, and Illinois State to win Arch Madness, the Ramblers won their first conference tournament title and secured their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1985.

And the “first since” and other milestones just kept coming: first Loyola tournament win since 1985, longest Loyola winning streak since 1985, first Sweet 16 by a team from Illinois since 2006, longest active winning streak in college basketball, first Elite Eight appearance for Loyola since 1963, first Elite Eight appearance by a team from Illinois since 2005, etc.

One other “first since” was Loyola’s first appearance on the national stage since the social media age began. And the stories and videos and memes of Sister Jean, Custer and Richardson’s friendship, the Wall of Culture, and Chicago latching on to the Ramblers as a feel-good story was made to blow up social media. Sometimes inspiring eye-rolls, and sometimes inspiring tears, Loyola also had a Final Four level Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Soundcloud and media game.

I knew there had to be a season-ending piece, but I had no idea it would take so long. Loyola blew past my main goal for the season, an NCAA Tournament appearance, with Donte Ingram’s beautiful three-point shot splashing at the buzzer against Miami. At that point I was more than satisfied. Then came Custer’s miracle, off-balance, running 20-foot jumper against #3 seed Tennessee that hit rim, bounced high off glass, and through. Then the Townes three against #7 Nevada. And a relative blowout against K-State. But that time, I was hoping against hope that I’d never have to write that column that ended with a loss.

Success always plays with your mind. And as Loyola had a 10-point lead midway in the second half against Michigan, it played hard. “Are we going to win this? I think we can win this! We’re going to win this! We are going to the National Championship Final!” It played so hard that the shift in the pace of the game being dictated by Michigan, and the slowly tightening noose of the Michigan defense were barely noticeable. Until the lead was down to 3. Then nothing. Then negative three. And negative six. Finally, 57-69.

I felt bad for the Loyola players who were taking it so hard, in large part because I wasn’t taking it so hard. I felt bad for the students on TV who went down to San Antonio and looked crushed when Loyola lost. I knew that the day would come to write the column that marked the end. But the players didn’t have any concept of an end to the season until it finally arrived, sudden and severe. That sincere #NoFinishLine belief by both players and fans was probably a big part of why they were in San Antonio on the last weekend of the college basketball season.

I remember watching Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson play in their first game as Ramblers, November 11, 2014. That was the year Loyola went to their first post-season tournament in 30 years, when Loyola won the CBI in Richardson and Ingram’s freshman year, part of Loyola’s first recruiting class as members of the MVC. Both of them took steps forward year by year, adding or improving a new facet to their game each off season. And they became steeped in the emerging Loyola culture, helping to integrate players like Lucas Williamson, Aundre Jackson, and Clayton Custer into the philosophy behind Loyola basketball.

As their college basketball careers end in the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio, Richardson and Ingram have been a part of 89 wins against 50 losses in their Loyola careers—the most wins for four-year players since—- EVER, for Loyola. Donte Ingram finishes his career with 1235 points, 688 rebounds, and 175 three-pointers. Ben Richardson ends with 761 points, 306 assists, and 302 rebounds. Both won prestigious league awards—Donte Ingram with the 2018 Second Team recognition and 2018 Arch Madness Most Outstanding Player, and Ben Richardson with the 2018 MVC Defensive Player of the Year award. Donte and Ben—and fellow seniors Aundre Jackson, Nick DiNardi and Carson Shanks– leave Loyola and their fans with banners, trophies, and memories. And most important, they’ve established a new sense of pride, and a culture of success in the program.

Thank you to everyone in the Loyola community—players, coaches, administrators, trainers, sports information, fans, students, and friends—who helped make this fantastic season happen.

NCAA Preview vs. Michigan — 3-31-2018

Saturday, March 31, 2018 5:09 p.m.
The Alamodome, San Antonio, Tex.

For a discussion of the 1964 NCAA Tournament game between Loyola and Michigan, and the disputed traveling call, click here.

After reaching their first Final Four in more than five decades, the Ramblers had a chance to celebrate for about 2 hours before discovering their national semifinal opponent. The game between Florida State and Michigan showed that both teams bidding for a berth against Loyola in San Antonio had significant strengths and a few weaknesses. After watching the game, most Loyola fans are probably happy that they won’t have to face the length and athleticism of Florida State. Still, they have to face a Big 10 powerhouse in the 32-7 Michigan Wolverines.

Want to get scared and intimidated? In the NCAA Tournament national semifinal, Loyola faces a Big 10 team—the Power 5 conference in Loyola’s own backyard. They face a team that won their tough conference tournament and won 13 games in a row dating back to Feb. 3—the second longest winning streak in college basketball. They’re a powerful defensive team, allowing opponents an average of only 63.1 points per game (8th best in the nation). They have three players averaging in double-digit points per game and are among the best shooters in D1 basketball with a 47.0% field goal percentage (56th in the nation)– and their 351 threes rank 18th in D1 hoops.

Pretty scary, huh? Unfortunately for the Michigan Wolverines, they’re facing a Loyola team that won its conference regular season (by four games) AND its conference tournament. They’re facing a team that has won 14 games in a row dating back to Jan. 31, the longest current winning streak in men’s college basketball. They’re facing a powerful defensive team that allows opponents an average of only 62.4 points per game (5th best in the nation). Five Loyola players average in double-digit points, and Loyola has the third best field goal percentage in the nation (50.9%) while shooting 40.0% from behind the arc (16th best in the nation).

The Wolverines played a relatively weak non-con schedule, and nearly made the worst of it. Because they lost the opening game of their MTE against LSU, they ended up playing Division II Chaminade and VCU on their trip to Hawaii instead of Notre Dame and Marquette. They lost a road game at North Carolina, and split their first two Big 10 conference games, leaving them on December 5th at 6-3 overall and 1-1 in conference with their best RPI win at home against Indiana (125). Michigan’s RPI was 220 going into week 4, while Loyola’s was 183.

During the last three weeks of December, the Maize and Blue won four non-con games, including a home win over UCLA and a roadie at Texas. And when conference play resumed, Coach John Beilein’s squad won their first two games to get back above .500 in conference for good. Michigan took care of business in the Big 10, impressing everyone with a 10-point road win over Michigan State on Jan. 13, and knocking off conference leader Ohio State in their home game against the Buckeyes. But there were some chinks in the armor: U of M was swept by Purdue in the regular season, split with Northwestern, and lost by 20 at Nebraska.

The loss at Northwestern on Feb. 6 was their last. The Wolverines won their last five regular season games to surge to a tie for 4th in the regular season standings. Then 5th-seeded UM knocked off Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue in four consecutive days to win the B1G Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Winning the B1G Tournament tends to go a long way with the committee, so Michigan got a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, two spots higher in the Big Dance than their seeding in their conference tournament. They beat 14-seed Montana, got a last-second 35-foot three-point prayer to beat 6-seed Houston, demolished 7-seed Texas A&M by 25 points, and ground out an ugly slog of a win against 9-seeded Florida State. They had whatever it took in several very different styles of play to get to the Final Four. And now one of these teams that was on no one’s radar as a serious, deep-run tournament threat after week four of the season is going to play for a spot in the National Championship game.

This is Michigan’s third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, and their 8th in the last 10 seasons. Their 3-seed in this year’s tournament is their second highest seeding after getting a 2 seed in 2013-14, the year after they lost in the title game. Loyola and Michigan met in the 1964 Sweet 16, with Michigan winning 84-80. Loyola won the last meeting between the two teams on Feb. 1, 1969 at Chicago Stadium, leaving U of M with a 2-1 advantage in the series.

LINEUPS

Michigan is likely to start 6’6” junior guard Charles Matthews, 6’4” senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, 6’0” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, 6’11” junior forward Moritz Wagner, and 6’7” freshman forward Isaiah Livers. Abdur-Rahkman is the dynamic leader of the Wolverines, and leads the team in minutes (35.7) and assists while averaging 12.8 points per game. More than half of Abdur-Rahkman’s shots come from behind the arc, where he’s connected on 71 threes while shooting 38.8%. Wagner (cue Flight of the Valkyries) is UM’s top scorer and rebounder with 14.3 and 6.9; his really great three-point shooting for a big man (59 made threes and 39.6% shooting) has probably surprised many opponents. Wagner leads the team in fouls (115) and disqualification from fouls (3), but if you’re thinking that fouling him out is the answer to your troubles, don’t bother. Michigan is 14-3 in games where Wagner has four or more fouls, and 3-0 in his three disqualifications.

Chicagoan Charles Matthews (St. Rita) is a transfer from Kentucky, and averages 13.0 ppg and 5.6 rpg; he’s an acceptable three-point shooter (32%), but really excels at finishing around the basket. Matthews can be prone to turnovers, but he has taken better care of the ball lately, outside of a five turnover game against Montana. Zavier Simpson is the quick playmaker for UM, who leads the team in assists (3.7 per game) and scores 7.5 points on average. He’s not a great shooter from distance, but finishes well at the basket.

The top bench players are 6’8” senior forward Duncan Robinson, 7’1” center Jon Teske, 6’1” grad transfer guard Jaaron Simmons, and 6’5” freshman guard Jordan Poole. Robinson is a senior who plays starter’s minutes and takes most of his shots from the perimeter. Despite being 6’8”, he can play the 2 or the 3, which provides a lot of flexibility. Robinson averages 9.5 ppg and is the best foul shooter by far on one of the worst free throw percentage teams in the country. Teske is a sophomore big man who averages 3.5 points and 3.3 rebounds; he’s gone for two double-doubles and scored 14 in the conference tournament final against Purdue. Simmons averages only 1.5 points per game. Poole averages 6.2 points per game and hit the game-winning three-pointer against Houston. Few other U of M players see meaningful minutes.

(For a helpful scouting breakdown on all the U of M players, you can read these two reports from Michigan fans posted on Ramblermania.)

STATS

Loyola looks fantastic if you go by raw numbers, but most college hoops observers will downplay Loyola’s stats as primarily coming against inferior mid-major competition. However, Loyola averages almost the same or even BETTER against tournament quality teams than they have for the season, and all of Loyola’s tournament quality games (Florida, Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, Kansas State) have come on the road or at neutral sites:

P5/Ranked Overall
Points for/against 67.8/62.6 72.0/62.4
Field goal pct. 52.4 50.6
Opp FG pct. 41.3 41.4
Three point pct. 42.9 40.0
Opp Three point pct. 26.4 32.6

(Note: Loyola also defeated Wright State in non-conference regular season play; they were a 14 seed in this year’s tournament).

Loyola and Michigan play very similar styles. Michigan is a slightly better rebounding team, enjoys playing at a slightly faster pace, and has a small edge in steals, blocks, and taking care of the ball. Loyola is a slightly better shooting team, both from the field and from the line. Michigan tends to play their best in a game with the pace factor (possessions per 40 minutes) from 66-71, while the Ramblers play a more deliberate pace (59-67). KenPom.com ranks Michigan 4th in Defensive Efficiency, and Loyola at 18th. Michigan ranks 30th in Offensive Efficiency while the Ramblers rank 60th.

The Ramblers are a decided underdog yet again, as they have been for every game of the tournament. Loyola hasn’t seemed intimidated by the big stage up ‘til now, but the Final Four will kick all of the hype and hysteria up another notch or two.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Here are some things Loyola will need to do to beat Michigan:

Dictate the pace. Michigan has the ability to win playing slow or fast and loose, but they prefer to manage their scoring into the mid-70s. When the games are in the low 60s or below, they tend to have a little trouble.

Shoot better than 50%. Teams have beaten Michigan averaging less than 50% on field goals, like Northwestern (40%), Purdue (47.4%) and Ohio State (48.9%). But all four opponents who shot over 50% against Michigan won their game. And Loyola has shot 50% or better from the field 24 times this season, winning all 24 games.

Get to the free throw line. Michigan is 14-6 when putting their opponents on the free throw line 16 or more times, which sounds like a pretty good record. But that accounts for all but one of their losses. And three of those wins came in overtime, and one came on Jordan Poole’s last-second bomb for the win over Houston. When opponents shoot fewer than 16 free throws, they’re 18-1. The Ramblers average 17.4 trips to the line in their wins, but only 15 in their losses.

Hold Michigan to less than 30% three-point shooting. The Wolverines are 7-5 when shooting less than 30% on threes, and the Ramblers are 15-0 when holding opponents under 30% from behind the arc.

Move the ball! The Ramblers have gotten away with being sloppy with the ball the past few games, averaging 12.8 turnovers in the tournament and 15.5 in the past two games. Meanwhile, Michigan has averaged only 9.8 turnovers in the tournament and only 8.3 over the last three games. Assists are especially important, as the Ramblers are 31-0 when making more or equal assists than their opponents, and the Wolverines are 1-4 when opponents win in assists.

LINKS