Loyola’s Cinderella story arrives at its next chapter with a second-round matchup against No. 3 Tennessee Saturday night. The No. 11 Ramblers already toppled No. 6 Miami (Fla.) with a thrilling buzzer-beater by Donte Ingram. Now the Volunteers await with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
Beating the Hurricanes showed that Loyola will not be an easy out in this tournament, even without a star player who seems destined for the NBA. Porter Moser’s team has proven that its romp through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament was no fluke. There’s some serious “story that captures the nation” potential here with a fun, balanced group.
But Tennessee is an even better team than Miami, and that means this will be an even bigger challenge. The Ramblers were actually rather fortunate for their first-round game, which was a close matchup despite the seeding. Miami and Loyola entered the tournament ranked 37th and 40th in the country, respectively, according to KenPom.com. Tennessee, meanwhile, comes in 11th, so this is a whole different ballgame in terms of resumes.
The Ramblers showed they can live up to the moment, though, and this is the time of the year when giants fall. Here’s what they’ll need to do to pull off the upset.
Space the floor, hit their threes
This may be the biggest factor of all. Tennessee and Loyola are both good defensive teams, ranking in the top 30 nationally in adjusted defensive rating, so the Ramblers’ ability to keep the ball moving and pile up three-pointers will be crucial to creating an advantage.
Loyola wasn’t particularly good at scoring during the regular season, ranking 67th in adjusted offensive rating, but the team finished 22nd in the country by hitting 39.7 percent of their threes. Against the Hurricanes, they shot 8-of-21 (38.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
It’ll take at least that kind of shooting effort for the Ramblers to keep up with the Volunteers, particularly because Loyola is so weak at drawing fouls. The team finished 265th in the nation in free throw attempts this season, and shot just 4-of-9 from the charity stripe against Miami.
Tennessee limited its opponents to 31.5 percent shooting from three during the regular season and Wright State shot 27.8 percent from long range against the Vols in the first round. If the Ramblers can’t break that trend, they’ll be in trouble.
Grind for rebounds
Neither Loyola nor Tennessee is a good rebounding team. The Ramblers lost that battle, 33-27, against the Hurricanes. The Volunteers are going to have a size advantage in this matchup, so Ingram and Cameron Krutwig in particular will need to grind hard for those loose balls.
Tennessee won’t blow anyone away with its offense, so allowing it too many second-chance opportunities would be a quick way to give it the upper hand. The same goes for Loyola failing to create extra scoring chances with offensive rebounds, something that may be important given how strong the Volunteers are defensively.
Hope it doesn’t come down to free throws
As noted above, the Ramblers are a bad team when it comes to drawing free throws. They’re also not great at hitting them, ranking 145th in the country at 71.9 percent. Tennessee ranks 39th at 75.9 percent.
This is often important late in close games when teams begin fouling each other and need to convert at the line. Countless teams have been knocked out of March Madness when a missed free throw allowed the other team one last shot. Just look at Loyola’s win over Miami, where the Hurricanes missed a one-and-one chance that could’ve extended their lead to three.
Instead of being in a situation where the worst Loyola could do was force overtime, Miami let Ingram’s last-second three-pointer seal their fate. The Ramblers should keep that in mind and hope they’re ready if a similar situation arises.