The tables have turned on NCAA Tournament darlings Loyola Chicago.
The Ramblers are no longer defined — and seemingly carried — by the charming Divine Intervention of Sister Jean, their 101-year-old team chaplain who’s omnipresent in the stands at their games.
As their Sweet 16 matchup against Oregon State at 2:40 p.m. Saturday approaches, the Ramblers have gone from feel-good story mid-major-makes-good amongst the big, bad, brand-name programs in the NCAAs to …
That’s right, Loyola Chicago, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, not only is favored to beat No. 12 seed Oregon State (19-12) to advance to the Elite Eight, it’s one of the favorites to make it to the Final Four and win it all.
According to BetMGM, Loyola is the sixth favorite out of the Sweet 16 teams to win the Final Four at 14/1. Gonzaga (+150), Baylor (9/2), Michigan (9/1), Houston (9/1) and Alabama (10/1) have more favorable odds than the Ramblers.
The NCAA experts, who obviously under-seeded the Ramblers, have apparently caught onto the fact that this is a formidable team, a much better team than the one that made that stunning run to the Final Four in 2018.
Loyola won its first three games of that 2018 NCAA Tournament by a combined four points. This team has double-digit wins over ACC tournament champion Georgia Tech and Illinois.
The Ramblers, who are 6.5-point favorites to beat Oregon State, are now No. 7 in the country in KenPom.com’s rankings.
They’ve done that with the top-ranked defense in the nation.
“I guess people kind of forgot or something, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year,” Cameron Krutwin, Loyola’s big man with the 70s ’stache, said after scoring 19 points with 12 rebounds in the win over Illinois. “I guess people chalk it up to maybe being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, play the right way, and we follow the scout and follow the scheme.”
The Ramblers looked every bit the better-coached team against Illinois, suffocating its offense defensively (forcing 17 turnovers and holding the Illini to 23 points below its season average) and using deft, video-game ball movement on offense (dishing out 16 assists).
Loyola coach Porter Moser, much the way Brad Stevens did when he led mid-major Butler on those NCAA Tournament runs before being hired away by the Celtics in 2013, has become the latest college hot prospect who’s drawing the attention of some big hitters.
What makes Loyola appear even more dangerous as this tournament careens toward April: Its players look and act like they belong, like they’re not the least bit surprised they are where they are.
“We know we’re not done yet,’’ Lucas Williamson said. “We’re just getting started.’’
Sure, there was some initial celebration on the court after the win over Illinois, but Moser, sensing his players were too business-like and casual about their accomplishment, had to gather them together and say: “Let’s enjoy the moment.”
“It’s amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe,’’ Moser said. “And these guys believed. From start to finish.”
So, as tip-off approaches, it will be Oregon State — a team that was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 before the season and had to get hot at the end of the year and win the conference tournament to even make it into the NCAAs — that will take the court as underdogs.
Now we get to see how Loyola Chicago handles being the favorite instead of the underdog.