Loyola Chicago basketball is playing great and trending in the direction of a potential Cinderella season. Is another storybook ending coming?

Cinderella stories are what make college basketball fun. While most major sports yield the same teams competing as finalists each year, the single-elimination format of the NCAA Tournament creates chaos. That chaos leads to the unforeseen, magical, and slipper-fitting moments that are remembered for years to come. From George Mason to Davidson to Butler (twice) to VCU to FGCU, the storybook of college hoops has added several fairytale chapters in recent memory.

Loyola Chicago was the nation’s last Cinderella when it squeaked its way to the 2018 Final Four behind three single-possession victories. Now, just three years later, the Ramblers are looking to once again put pen to paper while scripting another potentially mesmerizing March run. Could lightning strike twice? An experienced coach, a pair of remaining key figures from the prior run, and one of the best defenses in the nation indicate that it might happen.

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Just how good is Loyola Chicago?

Loyola Chicago is currently rated as the No. 13 team in the entire country by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin statistic. Put simply, the Ramblers are not exactly flying under the radar this season — at least not recently. Coach Moser’s team has won 12 of its last 13 games, including rattling off eight consecutive victories over the last three weeks.

Not only are they handling their business by rolling through the Missouri Valley, but they are making it look easy by smashing spreads along the way:

Click to enlarge.

Home-court advantage is very different this season due to COVID-19, but it is worth noting that their last five victories have all been on the road. No matter the location, the Ramblers come to play and can wreak havoc on opponents with their flustering defense and elite scoring efficiency. And if KenPom isn’t your jam, they also rank 14th in the NET, 14th in KPI, and 14th on T-Rank.

Loyola Chicago’s quality metrics almost unanimously portray a top team in the nation, and this is largely due to their meteoric rise as of late. This surge, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is a team that many, myself included, considered a fringe preseason Top 25 team heading into the campaign. It only took a couple of “get right” games following a late start to the season — Loyola’s first game was on Dec. 5 — to find their true groove.

Now that they’ve found that groove, there aren’t many hotter teams:

Data via T-Rank. That BARTHAG rating since Dec. 19th is sixth-best nationally.

Defense and senior leaders are the headliners

The phrase “defense wins championships” definitely applies to Loyola Chicago. Its dominance over this last stretch can mostly be attributed to absolutely stifling the opponents on that end of the floor. Even after their poor start to the year, the Ramblers rank in the Top 50 nationally in each of the “Four Factors” defensively: eFG% allowed (.445, 27th); turnover rate (.222, 37th); defensive rebounding rate (.776, 21st), and FTA/FGA allowed (.262, 47th).

The most important individual in this department is wing Lucas Williamson. While not the traditional rim-protecting defensive centerpiece, the 6-4 Williamson is a dynamo on that end who was snubbed from the DPOY Midseason Team. In addition to his work as a stopper, Williamson averages 8.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on 38.8 percent shooting from three. He fits the team identity perfectly.

Fellow senior Cameron Krutwig, though, brings the major star power for the team. While he is a throwback, post-up big man, there’s no denying his savviness and creativity. Krutwig is the lone Rambler in double figures as a scorer this season while posting 15.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. He scores on nearly 60 percent of his shot attempts.

Both Williamson (20.2 mpg) and Krutwig (23.7 mpg) played sizable roles as freshmen on the 2018 Loyola team that reached the Final Four. They understand what it takes to win in March, and are the senior leaders of a squad that ranks 43rd nationally in experience.

Floor spacing and ball movement propel the offense

With a “traditional big” like Krutwig running the show, it is important to space the floor around him. Both via high school recruiting and the transfer market, Coach Moser has been able to fill the roster with shooting threats. As a team, the Ramblers rank 76th nationally in 3-point efficiency. They have connected on 139 of 368 (37.8%) attempts thus far. Perhaps even more importantly, though, basically everyone in the rotation, sans Krutwig, is a threat from distance:

This kind of floor-spacing and shooting balance is incredible and the team uses it to its advantage. The Ramblers move the ball at a swift pace on each possession, attacking closeouts and looking for opportunities to push defenses even more out of position. They might only rank 262nd nationally in offensive tempo, but that is due to their patience and deliberate actions to generate open shots.

Loyola Chicago’s team dynamic passes the eye test with flying colors as it is seemingly always connected on both ends of the floor. Not only is that vital for an elite defense to succeed, but it is also evident offensively. The Ramblers rank 29th in assist rate (60.6%) as they are an unselfish group focused on finding the right shot on every possession. Their team chemistry appears to be outstanding and is a byproduct of ranking 14th in minutes continuity in the country.

How does this team compare to the 2018 Ramblers?

Loyola Chicago was outstanding in 2018. The Final Four run secured the group’s place in history, but it was just an extension of a very good regular season. The Ramblers held a 28-5 (15-3 MVC) record that year after winning their conference tournament and entered the Big Dance as a dangerous No. 11 seed.

The 2018 squad was experienced at the top while also boasting a pair of underclassmen contributors. Above all other factors, though, they were committed to their system and excelled in a number of key statistics nationally. That system hasn’t changed since then for Coach Moser, but his 2021 roster is perfecting it better than the 2018 team ever could. These two versions of the Ramblers exhibit very similar statistical profiles but the 2021 edition is even stronger.

Click to enlarge.

This 2021 team does just about everything well that Loyola’s 2018 team did well, but it does it better. Even in the categories where they struggled a few years ago, such as offensive rebounding and turnover rate, this year’s group is showing significant improvement. This roster is also older and ranks near the tops of the nation in continuity. They know how to play together and it’s difficult to force the Ramblers out of their system.

Do the Ramblers fit the “Cinderella” definition?

With how well Loyola Chicago is playing and its excellent advanced metrics, the above question is worth asking. Simply being an excellent team in a mid-major conference doesn’t make a team a potential Cinderella. What fans really want to see is a low seed making a deep NCAA Tournament run, and that is what we could see from the Ramblers even with their superb computer stats.

Considering they lost their only two major nonconference games (Wisconsin and Richmond) and play in just the nation’s 11th-toughest conference, their resume will not match up with most high-majors angling for a strong seed position.

This is what Loyola Chicago’s resume looks like as of Feb. 2nd:

Per Warren Nolan.

Loyola Chicago is currently projected to secure an at-large bid in 53 of 86 projected fields (61.6% in) in Bracket Matrix as a No. 12 seed. This is impacted by the fact that in-conference foe Drake is 17-0 and holding the predicted automatic bid for the Missouri Valley right now. The Ramblers will have their opportunities to knock off the Bulldogs and bolster the resume, but I wouldn’t anticipate a major jump in seed projection.

T-Rank’s “similar resumes” for Loyola Chicago.

Even if they continue to dominate over the final month and change of the regular season, Loyola Chicago likely will not secure anything better than a No. 6 seed. Its resume is void of elite wins and also lacks the future opportunities for adding quality victories. T-Rank’s “similar resumes” feature also backs up the Ramblers’ seed ceiling.

This sets the table for Loyola as a prime Cinderella candidate once again, as advanced metrics would indicate the squad being worthy of a Top 4 seed.

Cinderella 2: Loyola’s Sequel?

It would be a mistake to project the Ramblers to reach the Final Four again this season — a plateau that very few teams reach. It would be setting the bar far too high. But when it comes to picking potential Cinderellas for this year’s edition of the NCAA Tournament, that conversation should start by discussing Loyola Chicago.

The Ramblers have the total package of a team capable of making a deep run. They are well-coached, experienced, elite defensively, and boast strong shooting around an interior star. Perhaps most importantly, though, they’ve been in this position before. Coach Moser, Krutwig, and Williamson know what it takes to make a deep run, and they appear ready to do it again.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist