The selection committee did No. 1 seed Illinois no favors by vastly underseeding Loyola Chicago in the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket.
Loyola Chicago continues to ramble on in March. Porter Moser’s squad thoroughly handled Illinois 71-58 on Sunday. The Illini entered the day riding an 8-game winning streak and never led against the Ramblers.
While Illinois had one of its weaker performances of the season, a second-round pairing with Loyola Chicago never should have happened.
Loyola Chicago entered March Madness as one of the most underseeded teams in recent memory. The Ramblers had an adjusted efficiency margin of plus-25.18 on Selection Sunday and were handed a No. 8 seed. Since 2013, the average No. 8 seed had a pre-tournament adjusted efficiency margin of plus-16.66. Loyola’s plus-25.18 rating was closer to the average No. 2 seed (plus-26.38) than a No. 8.
To be clear, Loyola’s seed isn’t much of a surprise. The NCAA Tournament selection committee places a heavy emphasis on quality wins and strength of schedule, and in most cases, this method is perfectly serviceable.
In those two categories, the Ramblers didn’t have much to offer. Its best wins all year were against Drake and North Texas and it lost its only high-major game to Wisconsin by 14 back in December.
But it’s time for metrics like KenPom to play a larger role in seeding. Not only is it unfair for teams like Loyola Chicago, but Illinois has no business playing a team of the Ramblers’ caliber in the second round.
Gonzaga’s second-round opponent Oklahoma is 41st in KenPom, worse than three eligible teams that weren’t even picked as at-large bids. Meanwhile, fellow top seeds Michigan and Baylor are both set to take on teams whose efficiency margins are closer to typical No. 4 seeds than No. 8 seeds in LSU and Wisconsin.
In a year where geography isn’t even a factor in bracketing, the competitive imbalance is still striking.
This isn’t an endorsement to strictly use KenPom rankings for seeding. But there should be a “common sense” factor when it comes to resume strength vs. actual team strength.
Crazy things happen in March, but Loyola Chicago simply looked like the better team on Sunday. This isn’t in the sense of a team just happening to play better for 40 minutes — the Ramblers actually looked like the better team. If Loyola Chicago can take care of Oregon State or Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16, there’s a good chance the Ramblers will be ranked higher than Illinois in KenPom’s final ratings. Again, these two teams were separated by seven seed lines in the bracket.
We monitored this story throughout the season and it unfolded as most expected: Loyola Chicago punked a higher-seeded team’s hopes in a matchup that should have never happened this early in the tournament. It’s easier to say in hindsight, sure, but Sunday’s performance was just further proof.
What if it was Gonzaga that lost to Loyola Chicago in the second round instead? Would we call the Bulldogs the biggest failure in college basketball history? Or would we still acknowledge the committee’s head-scratching decision to lean this far into resume substance when efficiency metrics boldly indicate otherwise?
This draw wasn’t fair for Loyola Chicago. It certainly wasn’t fair for Illinois either.