The Loyola men’s basketball team is making its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Championship. Looking at the chances of another Cinderella run, The Phoenix compares this season’s squad with the most successful Loyola team in recent years — the 2018 Final Four Ramblers.
The most noticeable changes have come in personnel. The only returning participants from the Final Four team are former assistant coach and now first-year Loyola head coach Drew Valentine, graduate guard and two-time MVC defensive player of the year Lucas Williamson, former player and now director of player development Jake Baughman, and former graduate assistant and now director of men’s basketball operations London Dokubo.
In a press conference March 17, Valentine gave some insight on the most statistically similar team to theirs in previous years of NCAA basketball.
“We looked up what team we’re most similar to in the history of NCAA basketball and it’s literally the 2018 Loyola team,” Valentine said. “A lot of similarities. I think this team has a little bit more depth from one to ten, whereas that team was really like seven deep.”
Valentine said he considers this year’s team to be stronger and mentioned the enhanced depth of its roster.
“I think our recruiting, our talent has gone up,” Valentine said. “I think if you look at the talent that was on the 2018 team, I love those guys to death… but it’s just on a different level right now.”
The 2018 Loyola team had stronger individual scorers, with five players averaging more than 10 points per game throughout the season, compared to this season’s two. However, this season’s Ramblers are more versatile off the bench on both sides of the court, averaging 2.2 more points per game.
This season, Loyola has a significant edge over the 2018 team with 285 threes in just 32 games compared to the 2018 Ramblers’ 277 through 39 games. This comes with the caveat of this year’s team taking 45 more shots from beyond the arc in six less games.
The diversification of the team’s offensive approach may give them an edge the Final Four team didn’t have while facing defenses that may specialize in locking scorers out of the paint or outside the arc.
Overall, the Final Four team recorded a better shooting percentage from the floor and from three-point territory — albeit by a small margin, both differing by less than 3%.
Despite having played six less games so far this season, the 2022 Ramblers also have more offensive rebounds than the 2018 team 250 to 238. The Ramblers’ ability to get boards on offense allows for more second-chance points, compensating for their lower shooting percentage compared to the 2018 team.
As for turnovers, the difference is almost negligible. Both teams were able to keep about an average of 12 turnovers per game — lower than then-head coach Porter Moser’s and current head coach Drew Valentine’s goals for each game.
Sharing the ball is another area in which both teams have almost no differences, averaging 15 assists per game, though the Final Four team beat out this year’s Ramblers by an additional .63 average assists.
Even under a more rigorous schedule, the 2022 Ramblers’ defense is yet to allow more than 2,000 points this season. The 2018 roster allowed 2,054 points prior to entering March Madness. This season’s Ramblers are allowing 1.1 points per game less than the Final Four squad, forcing slightly more turnovers per game with 13.41 compared to the 2018 team’s 12.74.
According to Team Rankings, this season’s Ramblers have a better Defensive Efficiency with 0.914 compared to 2018’s 0.935. However, the 2018 team ranked 13 and this season’s ranks 21, highlighting the significant development of defensive focus in recent years.
Turnovers have also been looking better for Loyola this season. Forcing a slight .67 more turnovers per game this season, their turnover margin is +1.3 compared to the 2018 squad’s margin of +0.3.
Rebounds have been a weak spot for Loyola this year, but they’re still racking up 1.9 more boards than the 2018 team, holding a rebound margin of +3.1 — better than the 2018 team’s by a difference of 1.4.
This year’s Ramblers faced a tougher non-conference schedule on their road to the NCAA Tournament. Despite the 2018 team’s win against then No. 5 Florida State University, the four opponents it dropped in the Savannah Invitational didn’t stack up against this year’s competition at the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis.
After losing to Michigan State University by two points and No. 8 Auburn University by nine, the 2021-2022 Ramblers were able to take down Arizona State University to take seventh in the tropical tournament.
Loyola was able to hold Auburn — a No. 2-seed for the Midwest and which is favored by many to make this year’s Final Four — to just 62 points despite the 27-win team averaging nearly 80 points per game this season, a tie for its third-lowest score of the season.
No. 10-seeded Loyola is slated to face No. 7-seeded Ohio State University in the first round of the south region March 18 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Tip-off is scheduled for 11:15 p.m. C.T. and is set to be broadcast on CBS.