I’ve been trying to figure out what’s so pleasing about watching Loyola play basketball. It’s not the underdog, Cinderella thing. We’re done with that. Anyone who doesn’t think the Ramblers have a chance of beating whomever they face in the NCAA Tournament hasn’t been paying attention. Hasn’t been paying attention since 2018, when the team went to the Final Four.
So what is it? It’s not that the Ramblers play the “right way,” whatever that is. It’s that they play a good way. A fun way. A together way. A for-each-other way. It’s why No. 8-seeded Loyola has a good chance of beating 12th-seeded Oregon State on Saturday and advancing to the Elite Eight. And a good chance of more going forward.
Every Rambler handles the ball well. Every Rambler passes well. As a team, Loyola almost always takes good shots. There’s a selflessness there that all basketball coaches want, badly, but no matter how much breath they devote to the topic, it has to come from the players. You have to want to play for the other guys, not yourself. That’s where recruiting comes in. Get enough players with enough talent who understand the team concept, and a basketball season becomes a season of sharing. Older players show freshmen the way, and the kids follow. Suddenly, it’s not just about winning. It’s about how you win.
Loyola knows that it has to play the way it does in order to win. If other teams had that sense of self, they might still be alive in the tournament. Is that a function of the Ramblers’ not having any real stars, no certain NBA draft picks? Possibly. I watched LSU try to beat Michigan with two gifted players, Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart, taking turns throwing up shots. It didn’t work, and the Wolverines advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. You could tell that that LSU’s players had no idea this approach wasn’t conducive to winning against a strong team.
Loyola’s second-round game against No. 1 seed Illinois on Sunday was beautiful, as long as you weren’t an Illini fan. Illinois had more talent, but the Ramblers had more smarts. It was hard to shake the idea that the Ramblers would be the smarter team on any given day and that, if there were a 10-game Illinois-Loyola series, Loyola would win at least six. That’s how together the Ramblers were, and that’s how confident they looked.
Is that coaching? Maybe, but it’s hard to believe that the Illini’s Brad Underwood doesn’t know what it takes to win. At some point, it’s on players for not absorbing what their coaches are teaching.
For Loyola, it’s knowing who and what you are. But let’s not beat the basketball IQ angle into the ground. It’s about having talent, too.
Yeah, I get it: 6-foot-9, 255-pound Cameron Krutwig defies basketball logic. Basketball logic dictates that good players jump high and run fast. Krutwig does neither. He runs like Fred Flintstone driving his footmobile. But he understands position. He understands how to block out and how to get his shot. His footwork near the basket is exquisite. Footwork is athleticism, too, folks. Or at least it’s the intersection of athleticism and lots and lots of work.
CBS’ Bill Raftery has taken a deep liking to Krutwig, which is good. You wondered if Raf would ever quit Tyler Hansbrough.
Senior Lucas Williamson is a great defender who can score. Point guard Braden Norris takes care of the ball as if it were chained to his wrist. Raftery likes to tell us that Norris, a transfer from Oakland (Mich.), is a “coach’s son,” which means he’s a “gym rat,” which means “he’s the first one to arrive for practice and the last to leave,” which means he should never miss a free throw, but I’ve seen him miss a few, so now I’m questioning everything in my life. Sophomore Marquise Kennedy is smooth.
Talent? Yes. But stars? No. Krutwig leads the team in scoring with 15 a game, followed by Williamson (8.8) and Norris (8.4). Not exactly Harden, Durant and Irving.
Porter Moser has done an excellent job of finding players who fit his vision of what a team should be and then coaching them to the point where they know what he wants at all times. It’s why the Ramblers led the nation in points allowed this season. Gentle reminder: Athleticism plays a big part in defense, too. All of this is why Moser likely will have a chance to go somewhere bigger with better pay if that’s what he wants. Is it? That’s a decision for whenever the latest crazy ride ends.
And then there’s 101-year-old Sister Jean. There is no such thing as too much Sister Jean because it’s not her fault the networks show her 20 times a game and because … who can be against goodness? If the Ramblers win Saturday, I fully expect to see feature stories about the optician who fits her with eyewear and the science behind the rubber on her wheelchair’s wheels. That’s how big she’s become.
The Ramblers are a good story. More than that, though, they’re a good team. I believe opponents have taken notice.