The South Region No. 10 seed Loyola men’s basketball team (24-7, 13-5) is lacing up its dancing shoes for the second year in a row after winning the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Championship March 6. The team held a Selection Sunday watch party in Gentile Arena March 13, where its first round opponent of the NCAA tournament was announced — No. 7 seed The Ohio State University.
Loyola and Ohio State have played each other four times over the course of 67 years, with their last matchup during the 2006-2007 season. Ohio State has won each matchup, but none of them were tournament games.
The Ramblers are entering the tournament on a higher note than the Buckeyes after winning the MVC Tournament and receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA. Ohio State lost to Penn State University in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament and received an at-large bid after finishing third out of fourteen teams in the conference.
Both teams have played fairly well within their conferences, Loyola sitting at 13-5 and Ohio State 12-8. Though Ohio State has played more schools in major conferences, Loyola’s overall 24-7 record is not discredited, as it went against major conference teams during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Though Loyola lost to former No. 22 Michigan State University and former No. 21 Auburn University, the team pulled a win against Arizona State, a member of the PAC-12 conference.
Loyola does have some statistical advantages against the Buckeyes, though most are fairly even. The biggest difference is its assist percentage, at 15% they hold a 2.2% advantage over Ohio State’s 12.8%. Loyola’s steal percentage also sits at a 6.9 per game compared to Ohio State’s 4.4.
One spot Ohio State has the upper hand on is their free throws. The Buckeyes hold a 76.0% percentage over Loyola’s 71.9%. The Ramblers also struggle slightly more with turnovers per game, averaging 12.2 over Ohio State’s 11.0.
However, Loyola has Ohio State beat in points from the bench. In the MVC Championship game, the team had 22 points from the bench — Ohio State had only nine in their last game.
The Buckeyes also have an edge in their rankings. Loyola was only ranked in the AP Top 25 once throughout the season, during Week 11 at No. 22, whereas the Buckeyes have been in the Top 25 for 12 straight weeks. The Ramblers have recieved votes for the Top 25 following their week 11 ranking but have yet to make it back in, though they received 18 votes in the latest poll.
Loyola’s inability to make another appearance in the Top 25 has multiple factors. Ohio State is one of the biggest state schools in the country, with over 66,000 students. Compared to Loyola’s 16,000, Ohio State is in a major conference, which automatically gets more recognition. As a part of a mid-major conference, Loyola gets much less acknowledgement from the NCAA or the AP due to the fact they’re not in a major conference.
Despite their absence from the AP Poll, Loyola currently sits above Ohio State in the NET rankings at No. 23 — three above Ohio State at No. 26.
Shifting the focus to individual players, Ohio State has one noticeable standout in junior forward E.J. Liddell. He averages 19.6 points per game with a 49.2%, along with 76.9% in free throws. Last season, Liddell was listed as one of the 20 breakout players of the year by Jon Rothstein in the 2020-2021 season and made First Team All-Big Ten and the All-Big Ten Tournament team.
Liddell’s teammate, first-year guard Malaki Branham, also poses as a potential threat to the Ramblers. Branham was an ESPN Top 100 recruit coming into the season and averages 13.3 points per game, but also holds a 42.5% in three pointers and a 82.6% in free throws— one of Ohio State’s best in both areas.
Following Selection Sunday, the Ramblers collectively said they haven’t had a lot of looks at Ohio State throughout the season but were excited to finally find out their opponent after a week of waiting.
Redshirt junior guard Braden Norris said his team feels confident going into the tournament because of its experience in previous years.
“Every team, when you’re in the NCAA Tournament, [has] to field either champions in their respective conferences or they’re top in their conference,” Norris said. “All 68 teams can win games in the tournament, so we’ve gotta prepare the same each day.”
Ohio State isn’t the only team with impressive individual numbers — Loyola’s roster contains some successful players of its own.
Graduate guard Lucas Williamson leads the team with 14.0 points per game, followed by Norris with 10.3. Though they’re lower than Liddell’s and Branham’s, Loyola’s players are strong in their versatility. As the MVC’s Defensive Player of the Year for two consecutive years and the MVC Championship’s Most Outstanding Player, Williamson’s ability to perform well on both ends of the court provides Loyola with another competitive edge.
Norris leads the team in three pointers, with a .435 three point percentage. He’s also right behind senior forward Ryan Schweiger with a .785 free throw percentage.
Loyola holds a lot of depth within its team, which is one of their biggest strengths. Though players such as Norris and Williamson played more than 30 minutes during the MVC Tournament, none of them were played constantly. Loyola has enough reliable players on the bench to replace their starters without putting the team at risk of falling behind. This was a visible difference against Drake in the Championship game, when the Bulldogs’ first-year guard Tucker DeVries played all 40 minutes.
One of Loyola’s biggest individual advantages is senior forward Chris Knight — a recent addition to Loyola’s starting lineup — who leads both teams with a 63.2% in field goals . Both Knight and Schweigher transferred to Loyola this season from Ivy League schools and have proved to be clutch players off the bench.
Loyola head coach Drew Valentine said he’s excited for his team to be back in the tournament and to take the trip to Pittsburgh, but one thing remains at the forefront of his mind.
“You go one game at a time,” he said. “You don’t look too far ahead, you don’t look at the rest of the bracket, you focus on that first team.”
The Ramblers and the Buckeyes will meet for the fifth time in history during the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 18. Tipoff is set for 11:15 a.m CT and will be broadcast on CBS.