With a stronger closing kick in St. Louis, those maroon and gold scarves fly at half-mast. Bracketville doesn’t look like the Quidditch Cup. Sister Jean is a cute provincial interest, rather than Our Lady of Blessed March.
On March 2, Northern Iowa had Cinderella pinned to the mat. Loyola-Chicago trailed 37-33 to the Panthers with 10:36 to play in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Even though the Ramblers had a victory at Florida on their resume, precedent said the Valley was a one-bid league, and that bid was coming from the survivor at Scottrade Center.
“They’re very comfortable playing close games, as weird as that may sound,” says UNI coach Ben Jacobson, whose scouting report for the Michigan Wolverines (32-7), Cinderella’s first dance partner at the Final Four of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, starts there.
Jacobson’s Panthers fell to the eventual and regular-season Valley champs in that quarterfinal, 54-50. Before the NCAA tourney, that was the closest thing the Ramblers had to a loss since a 69-67 setback at Bradley back on Jan. 31.
Loyola hits San Antonio riding a 14-game win streak; Michigan has won 13 straight. Something’s gotta give.
“They went 15-3 in our league, but a lot of the games were close in the second half,” said Jacobson, a veteran of four NCAA tourneys over the last decade. “I think a couple of our [UNI] teams in 2010 and 2015, those two years, we had games we were ahead by double-digits in the second half in a lot of those games. Wichita State, the last couple years, they were ahead by double digits in a lot of those games.
“Loyola is pretty comfortable with games being close, as they’ve shown in the tournament. They’re not going to panic if they’re behind by one in a first-round game. People around the country are seeing that for the first time; we saw it all year in the league.”
Jacobson saw a few other things, too. And when Land of 10 asked what Michigan fans — and coaches — might want to keep an eye on Saturday night, the three-time Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year offered up these tips:
1. Don’t take a possession off
The Wolverines have surprised some neutral observers with their willingness to scrap and with their defensive grit. The Ramblers, a No. 11 seed in the Big Dance, are cut from the same cloth.
But they also know they don’t have the NBA talent — no Moe Wagner, no Charles Matthews — to operate with a margin for error.
“You’re going to have to play every possession,” Jacobson notes. “They don’t take any possessions off. They don’t give any possession away. So you’re going to have to beat them on every possession.”
Billy Donovan shared that one of the two hardest things to defend were closeouts. #Loyola forces 7 #Nevada closeouts on one defensive possession. #NCAATournament #MarchMadness #Sweet16 pic.twitter.com/vAPVYRog4z
— Chris Campbell (@Coach_Campbell) March 23, 2018
To wit: Loyola heads into the weekend ranked No. 5 nationally in effective field-goal percentage (58.0), No. 11 in 3-point field-goal percentage (40.2) and No. 6 in shooting efficiency (1.204).
2. Don’t let them run their stuff
With five seniors on the roster, the Ramblers run a tight ship in the half-court, are unapologetically patient and can pass their way into a shot they want rather than let your defense dictate it. Loyola ranks No. 24 in the country in ratio of assists per field goal made (0.599).
In other words, Cinderella knows where to be — and when to be there.
“Offensively, they pass the ball as well as, or better than, any team in the country,” Jacobson said. “There’s a handful of teams that pass the ball really well, and they’re in that top group.
“Defensively, guarding the basketball is important because once they get started, if you’re chasing them around, it makes it tough to guard them.”
Loyola Backdoor Action (Skilled Big Making Plays)
Skill Wise: The timing, read and pass by a 6’9 Freshmen is just really impressive
4 on 5 Down Screen
Pinch Post Catch
False Handoff Action
Overload side with 3 Shooters
Dribble At – weakside guard makes read pic.twitter.com/FqiWLN49pP
— Tyler Relph (@TylerRelph10) March 26, 2018
That said, like many of his peers, Jacobson has long been a fan of Michigan coach John Beilein’s offenses.
“I talk about Loyola’s passing, [but] I think John Beilein is one of the absolute best in the college game — in particular, at the offensive end of the floor,” the UNI coach says. “I’ve been watching his teams for years, how they execute, how they pass the ball. What they do offensively is just tremendous.
“I’m looking forward to watching the game, because both teams are so good in that they run good stuff, but outside of that, it’s the way they pass the basketball, it’s the way they play together, what they give up to get the next guy a better shot, or a better opportunity. I think both teams play that way — I think it’s a great matchup from that standpoint.”
The Ramblers, like Michigan, bring a top-20 defense to the Final Four party, coming out of the South regional ranked No. 19 in KenPom.com defensive efficiency (95.3 points allowed per 100 possessions; the Wolverines were No. 4, at 91.1 points allowed). But because Loyola, like most mid-majors, isn’t big (or deep) in the post, the Ramblers can be had in the paint — the MVC champs rank just No. 218 nationally in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim (61.0), according to Hoop-Math.com
“Defensively, they’re just rock-solid,” Jacobson continues. “You’re going to have to [be sound] with your stuff, because they’re just rock-solid on the defensive end.”
3. Don’t be afraid to go big, but respect them playing small
When the Ramblers want to give starting center Cameron Krutwig a blow, they often go smaller, shifting 6-foot-5 forward Aundre Jackson to the post. When the Wolverines sub Wagner, they go bigger — replacing the 6-foot-11 German with 7-foot-1 Jon Teske.
— Tony Smith (@CoachTSmithJr) March 23, 2018
“I think some of the difference will probably come with matchups,” Jacobson said.
“Loyloa is going to be a bit undersized. When Jackson comes in at the center position, they get pretty small. But they’ve obviously figured out how to be highly efficient when they are that small. That’s going to make for an intriguing time during that game, the stretches in the game when Jackson is at the center position, to see how both coaches [adjust].”
4. Play 40 minutes — because they’re sure as heck going to
Just ask Miami.
— Hylights (@HylightsCFB) March 15, 2018
— Hylights (@HylightsCFB) March 18, 2018
“It’s just not a surprise that they’re making big plays when the games are close,” Jacobson says. “[They] have a good group of guys who aren’t bothered whether they’re tied or down 1 or up 1. They don’t have any problems with that. And I think that’s one of the things that allows them to be a great team.”