By now, you know Sister Jean — the 98-year-old Loyola-Chicago team chaplain making the rounds as a viral sensation.
That is, unless you’re Charles Matthews.
“I don't know who Sister Jean is,” Matthews said with senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman cackling next to him. “No disrespect.”
Divinity aside, though, the Ramblers earned their trip to San Antonio for the Final Four by playing some pristine basketball.
Don’t let the old-smiling-Nun persona or an 11-seed fool you. This team can play.
Emphasis on team.
Loyola-Chicago has five scorers who average double-digit points per game, none higher than Clayton Custer’s 13.2. The Ramblers shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range and assist on over 60 percent of their buckets. It’s an unselfish, defensively-sound team, much in the same mold of, you guessed it, Michigan.
The Daily broke down game tape from Loyola-Chicago’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight wins over Nevada and Kansas State, respectively, to evaluate the non-religious challenges the Ramblers may present ahead of Michigan’s Final Four clash:
If you don’t read the next 800 words, that clip is all you need to know. That one possession epitomizes Loyola-Chicago’s offense: patient, smart, efficient, disciplined, balanced.
The Ramblers make nine passes, take seven shot fakes and get touches from all five players outside the 3-point arc in the final 20 seconds of the shot clock before ending on a back-breaking, uncontested 3-pointer. Nevada, in many ways, defends well here — chasing Loyola-Chicago off the 3-point line and darting to recover. But it didn’t matter, because few teams are capable of consistently sustaining that energy and aggression for a full 30 seconds, possession after possession.
And with a team that shoots 40 percent from 3-point range and has seven guys who shoot 35 percent or above, the Ramblers will penetrate in the lane and find any of their plethora of options on the perimeter.
If you’ve watched Michigan’s offense this season, you’ll be familiar with much of Loyola-Chicago’s action come tip-off at 6:09 p.m. on Saturday. The offense thrives on dribble penetration, crisp passing, off-ball screening, shot fakes and knockdown shooting. And while that’s hardly a novel concept in today’s college basketball, the Ramblers perfect those fundamentals. It’s a team whose constant motion and high IQ demands intense discipline to guard; luckily for Michigan, its No. 3-ranked defense, according to KenPom.com, has it in droves.
But in what could certainly be a tight game, the Wolverines can ill afford many Jordan Poole-falls-asleep-on-his-defender-in-the-corner-type lapses.
Much like Michigan, Loyola-Chicago is perfectly content operating in the half court and wearing down opponents with halfcourt efficiency led by Custer. But unlike Houston’s Rob Gray, for example, the Wolverines can’t simply rely on sophomore Zavier Simpson cutting off Custer and grinding the opposing offense to a halt. The Ramblers will attack in several different ways, including here in transition.
In this clip, Custer grabs the board and each player sprints directly to his spot on the break.
Kansas State jogs back and actually establishes itself defensively inside the 3-point arc. But the ball is on a string. And with each player in tune with the other, the far-side guard gets the ball quicker than his defender anticipated.
As a result, he closes out just a hair too late. For Loyola-Chicago, that’s three points every time.
Here, center Cameron Krutwig has options. He can fling the ball to any of his other four teammates and set a screen, attack off the dribble or even shoot a midrange jumper. Instead, he runs a dribble hand-off, rolling toward the hoop quickly with no help left behind, utilizing his soft touch for two points close to the basket. It’s an option he will undoubtedly seek early against foul-prone, junior center Moritz Wagner.
That offensive versatility will provide the Michigan defense its biggest challenge of the NCAA Tournament.
Before the game against Houston, assistant coach Luke Yaklich explained what makes Beilein’s scheme so hard to guard. His answer enlightens the Wolverines’ challenge ahead of Saturday.
“For (Beilein), it’s just, there’s a read and an adjustment for everything that he does,” Yaklich said. “I heard one time a coach say, ‘If you really teach your players good offense, no matter what the defense does, they’re wrong.’ And it made a lot of sense to me. Coach’s system is the total microcosm of that statement in that … there’s an adjustment for whatever the defense does. The moving parts all put together make that hard to guard. I watch it everyday, and I struggle with it everyday trying to get our guys to guard our own stuff.”
That about sums it up.
And it’ll be Yaklich, 7-1 against Loyola-Chicago in his career from his time at Illinois State, who might just hold the key to finding that elixir.
For all the talk about Loyola-Chicago’s offense, the defense is ranked 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
It doesn’t present the same type of lengthy terror that Florida State unleashed Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Ramblers won’t be swatting shots with vigor or pulling seven-footers off the bench like they’re leaves on a tree. Loyola-Chicago’s tallest rotation player is 6-foot-9 center Cameron Krutwig, who isn’t the bounciest or most fleet of foot.
That being said, the Ramblers aren’t the typical profile you might imagine of a mid-major team that shoots the lights out. Their athleticism shouldn’t be overlooked, with the ability to comfortably switch from point guard through power forward.
Because of its defensive versatility, Loyola-Chicago isn’t troubled by the down screens on this possession. The post entry pass is met with a quick double-team with a sound recovery on the skip pass across the wing.
With the shot clock suddenly running down, the Wildcats’ guard is forced to take a few dribbles and heave up a low-percentage floater. And after the miss, Loyola-Chicago rebounds a respectable 75.5 percent of opposing misses.
While Kansas State’s offense doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, the Ramblers remain disciplined and stout. They keep their hands active and collapse on drivers.
Much like Michigan, it’s the defense that makes this engine go, while still garnering less attention than it perhaps deserves.