With another NCAA Tournament appearance looking increasingly likely for the No. 20 Loyola men’s basketball team, it’s only natural to compare this year’s squad to the 2017-18 Ramblers that put Loyola basketball back on the map with a run to the Final Four.
There are some obvious similarities between the two teams. For starters, seniors Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig — albeit, with noticeably different facial hair for the center from Algonquin — are still important members of the team. Clayton Custer, the starting point guard on the Final Four squad, graduated but returned as an assistant coach this season. Porter Moser is still at the helm calling the shots. And as is typical with a Moser-led team, Loyola has been driven by its defense.
Except this season, that defense has been especially suffocating. The Ramblers allowed the fewest points per game in the country this season, but they also play at a very slow pace which makes it tough to gauge just how impressive that actually is. Sports-Reference’s adjusted defensive rating — which is how many points a team allows per 100 possessions, adjusted for a team’s strength of schedule — provides a better way to compare teams since it accounts for a team’s pace and opponent quality.
This season, Loyola has the ninth-best adjusted defensive rating in the country and the best in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) by a wide margin. Accounting for the Ramblers’ strength of schedule, they’ve allowed 86.62 points per 100 possessions this season. Drake University has the second-best mark in the conference at 97.24.
This year’s Loyola squad is also noticeably better than the 2018 team on the defensive end. Those Cinderella Ramblers allowed 93.84 points per 100 possessions — the 46th-best mark in the country but still tops among MVC teams that year.
When asked whether the current team would beat the 2018 team in a hypothetical matchup, Custer said it was difficult to choose but pointed out many strengths for this year’s team. He said he thought the current Ramblers have better bench production and are capable of playing better than the Final Four squad.
“I think it’s very possible,” Custer told the Phoenix. “I think this team is deeper. I think this team is probably better defensively as well. I think the upside of this team is a little bit higher so it would definitely be a great series and it would come down to the last shot.”
On the other side of the ball, Loyola’s offense looks quite different on paper from 2018. Led by Custer’s 13.2 points per game, the 2018 Loyola team had five players averaging double figures — including a first-year Krutwig who put up 10.5 points per contest.
Fast forward three years and Krutwig is up to averaging 15.0 points per game, but Loyola lacks another consistently high scorer. Williamson is Loyola’s second-leading scorer this season, averaging 7.9 points. The current Ramblers scored 71.6 points per game while the 2018 team was slightly higher at 73.6 points per game in the regular season.
“When you go through our year with the Final Four, nobody was [averaging] 20 points per game,” Moser said. “That’s not intentional, trust me I love a 20-point guy, but it’s just the overall mentality of not caring, sharing the ball, moving it, not caring who gets the credit.”
However, a key area where Loyola has struggled at times this season is outside shooting. The Ramblers have made 35.4 percent of their three-pointers this season. That ranks as the 104th-best mark in the NCAA this season out of 347 qualified Division I teams, but it’s a sizable drop-off from the scorching 40.7 percent that Loyola knocked down during the regular season in 2018.
Regardless of how the Ramblers’ balanced offensive attack but lack of elite outside shooting will impact their success in the postseason, Moser said he feels much more confident about his team’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament at this point in the season compared to three years ago.
“I felt like in 2018 people were saying [we needed to win Arch Madness] going into the tournament,” Moser said. “I don’t think people are saying that this year. I think the feedback I’m getting is really, really positive.”
Comparing the resumes of the two seasons is difficult. For starters, this year’s non-conference scheduling has been significantly hindered by COVID-19. Despite losing both games, Loyola still managed to snag quality opponents in then-No. 12 University of Wisconsin-Madison Dec. 15 and then-No. 25 University of Richmond Dec. 18.
Long before the Final Four run, the Ramblers knocked off then-No. 5 University of Florida Dec. 6, 2017 on the road for a true marquee victory that this year’s team is lacking.
The Ramblers failed to beat a ranked opponent this season, but they also mostly avoided bad losses. In 2018, Loyola suffered a 34-point blowout loss to Boise State University Nov. 28, 2017 and then lost three out of four games at the end of December and early January. Loyola’s four losses this season were by a combined 22 points, with two of those losses coming against teams who were ranked at the time.
Regardless of the resume the two teams built during the regular season, Custer said a large part of the 2018 success was due to the team’s mentality, and it’s something he’s trying to instill on this year’s team from the sidelines.
“One of the things we did very well the year we made it to the Final Four, we had fun off the court,” Custer said. “But when it was really time to focus in on the game, we were locked in and had a laser-like focus. … Those are the type of things I’m trying to echo to the guys on the team.”
Loyola’s first game of the MVC Tournament is March 5 against Southern Illinois University. Tip-off is set for 11 a.m. on Fox Sports Midwest, Fox Sports Indiana, Fox Sports Kansas City and NBC Sports Chicago.