It's a matchup of two teams making their long-awaited returns to the NCAA Tournament. The Loyola Chicago Ramblers made one of the more improbable runs in Tournament history back in 2018 when they surprised everybody by going to the Final Four. This is their first appearance since that magical run. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, are dancing for the first time since 2010. Between then and now, their only postseason appearances were in the NIT Tournament ('16, '17). They were banned from any postseason play last year due to NCAA violations, but it didn't matter as the pandemic forced all of last season's tournaments to be canceled.
Both teams are now back with something to prove. The Ramblers had to navigate an ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Conference this year. They went 16-2 in league play and won 14 of their final 16 regular-season matchups to claim their third conference title. As the top seed at the MVC Tournament in St. Louis, Loyola defeated Southern Illinois, Indiana State, and Drake all by double digits to win another "Arch Madness" trophy and enters the Big Dance ranked 17th in AP Top 25 poll.
As for the Yellow Jackets, they've had one of the more interesting campaigns. After a 6-3 start, their final non-conference game with UAB was canceled, while their first three ACC games were postponed due to the pandemic. They returned to the court on Jan. 20 but went 4-5 in their next nine games before having their Feb. 17 game against Boston College postponed. The Jackets resumed play on Feb. 20 and finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak. That earned them the fourth seed, and a double-bye, in the ACC Tournament. In the quarterfinals, Tech defeated a Miami team that upset Clemson the day before. Georgia Tech was then scheduled to play regular-season champ Virginia in the semifinals, but the Cavaliers had to forfeit because of a positive COVID-19 test. In the championship game, the Yellow Jackets knocked off a Florida State team that won last year's regular-season title.
After winning its first tournament title since 1993, Georgia Tech now hopes to carry that momentum into this matchup with Loyola. The winner of this game will face the winner of the No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 Drexel matchup. Many are already anticipating a potential Illinois vs. Loyola pairing.
Midwest Region: No. 9 Georgia Tech Yellowjackets (17-8) vs. No. 8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (24-4)
Time: Friday, March 19 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Loyola Chicago -3.5
Keys for Georgia Tech
The ACC Tournament champions will take on Loyola Chicago without the services of their best player. Moses Wright, the ACC Player of the Year, will miss Friday's game for an unspecified reason and also reportedly would remain sidelined should Georgia Tech win.
But for now, the focus is on beating the Ramblers without Wright, who finished the regular season third in the ACC in scoring (17.4 ppg), fourth in rebounding (8.0 rpg), and sixth in blocked shots (1.64 bpg). The matchup down low between him and Cameron Krutwig, the Missouri Valley Conference POY, was going to be something to watch, but presumably, the advantage shifts to Loyola now. Reserve Rodney Howard, who is a little taller (6-10) than Wright (6-9), will be asked to play more minutes now.
Fortunately, Yellow Jackets are not a one-man show as guards Jose Alvarado (4.1 apg, 3.0 spg) and Michael Devoe (13.5 ppg, 3.3 apg) anchor the backcourt. Both will need to pick up their play on both ends to try and offset Wright's absence.
Keys for Loyola
For the Ramblers, everything starts and ends with the aforementioned Krutwig. The senior center won the Larry Bird Trophy (MVC Player of the Year award), was named first-team All-MWC and third-team AP All-American after leaving his mark as a scorer, (15.0 ppg), rebounder (6.7 rpg), and shot blocker (1.22 bpg). He also shoots very well for a big man (57.9 percent from the field), and he leads this Rambler team in assists (3.0 apg). Without Wright to bang with down low and more importantly, defend on the other end, Krutwig could be poised for a big game.
Of course, Krutwig doesn't do it all by himself. Helping him in the paint is forward Aher Uguak, who was named to the MVC's All-Defensive team although he's a solid shooter himself (62.9 percent). This group is rounded out by guard Lucas Williamson. He was the conference's defensive MVP and is the Ramblers' second-leading scorer (8.2 ppg). Defense is a staple of head coach Porter Moser's game plan, and you can expect Loyola to establish that from the opening tip.
This is just the second all-time meeting between the schools. You have to go all the way back to 1967 for the first matchup, which was a win for Loyola. The Ramblers are just 7-32 all-time against the ACC, but they have wins against the likes of Miami, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Duke in addition to Georgia Tech. They've gone 1-1 in their last two games against ACC opponents, which consisted of that Miami win (2018), and a 2015 loss to the Fighting Irish.
They've also gone 5-5 in their last 10 games against "Power Six" conference opponents (Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac-12). The Yellow Jackets are 2-4 all-time against MVC opponents but haven't played anyone from that league since 2004 (a win over Northern Iowa). Past history aside, the key to this game is the unexpected absence of Moses Wright. This means that one team will be down their conference's player of the year while the other will likely have his way on either end of the court. Georgia Tech won't roll over but Loyola should find a way to pick up another big NCAA Tournament victory and move on. Sister Jean be praised.
Prediction: Loyola 70, Georgia Tech 65
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.