(CBS Chicago)- We’re a little over three years to the day removed from when college basketball fans were first introduced to Porter Moser and Loyola-Chicago when the Ramblers scored a pair of shocking upsets over 6-seed Miami and 3-seed Tennessee in the opening rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. With Sister Jean watching on from the sidelines, the 11-seed Ramblers made their way through the South region one upset at a time in nail biter after nail biter to earn a spot in the Final Four, capturing the nation’s hearts and attention along the way.
This season, the Ramblers are back, this time as an 8-seed, having run through the Missouri Valley with the best defense in the nation by the numbers. There are a pair of familiar faces in MVC Player of the Year Cameron Krutwig and guard Lucas Williamson who both played roles on that Final Four squad. Sister Jean, at 101-years-old, will be in Indianapolis to cheer the team on. So the big question is, with a higher seed, can the Ramblers recapture that magic?
CBS Sports lead analyst Bill Raftery said during a tournament media call this week that he’s looking forward to seeing the team back in the Big Dance.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Sister Jean, I could use some prayers certainly,” said Raftery. “We had them a couple of years ago and I’m in love with Krutwig because he reminds me of the old days. If he touches the net, he’s leaping. The feel for the game, the handle, how he finds people. He just makes plays. And it’s a new group of kids too. Williamson is a very talented kid, passes it well. That guard, Norris, the transfer from Oakland, runs the show, makes free throws down the stretch. This is a talented team. I don’t know if they score as well as we saw a couple of years ago, but they guard and they’re tough closing out games.”
The offense may not be quite as good as the 2018 team which had five players, including Krutwig, averaging double figures on the year. But, Krutwig remains the pivot point, with the team, filled with shooters around him (36.8% 3PT) allowing him to act as a point-center, distributing the ball.
But where the team really shines is the defensive end which could spell trouble for opponents in the tournament. They allowed just 55.5 points per game during the season while opponents shot just 40.7% from the floor and 32.6% from three. A man-to-man team, the Ramblers force you to execute late in the shot clock and often turn you over (13.9 per game). The other thing to note, Raftery points out, is that this group may be deeper than 2018’s.
“They seem a little bit deeper too,” said Raftery. “It will be fun watching them again. Porter Moser decided with all of the acclaim and success that he was going to stay there. He’s a Chicago guy, he loves it and he really understands the type of kid that he wants to coach.”
The 2018 team routinely rotated through about nine guys, this year there are 10 or 11 that get regular playing time. Krutwig is the only player who averages double figures (15 ppg) but there are seven guys who average between five and eight points, any of whom can jump into the teens on a given night depending on how the game plays out.
The first round matchup against Georgia Tech is far from a gimme. The Yellow Jackets ran off eight straight wins to end the season on their way to the ACC tournament championship. But, they will be missing top scorer and ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright, who is out at least for the first round matchup.
The Ramblers enter as three-point favorites at the moment. If they make it past the first round, a date with 1-seed Illinois awaits. That in-state battle would be a fascinating watch.
Round of 64 action between Loyola-Chicago and Georgia Tech is set for Friday, March 19 with tip-off at 4:10 p.m. Eastern Time on TBS from Hinkle Fieldhouse.