A Cinderella will represent the South Region in the Final Four
Based solely on seeding, neither No. 9 Kansas State nor No. 11 Loyola-Chicago should have played but one game in the South Region of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Funny how things work out in March.
Arguably the biggest, or at least most fun Cinderella story of this Tournament continued on Thursday, when Loyola used another end-of-game jump shot to punch its ticket to the Elite Eight. Marques Townes' triple to hold off a late Nevada rally joins Donte Ingram's buzzer-beater in the First Round to sink Miami, and Clayton Custer's bucket to bounce Tennessee from the Second Round.
After upsetting blue-blood program Kentucky, Kansas State will again play the role of Cinderella Stopper. In the Round of 32, the Wildcats ended the March dream of unprecedented underdog UMBC, the first No. 16 ever to advance to the Second Round.
Loyola represents the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference, while Kansas State comes from the Power 5 Big 12. Despite the difference in designation, only Loyola boasts a national championship. In an interesting turn of coincidence, K-State played for the crown one year after the Ramblers won it (1963).
Neither program has been back to the Final Four since. That changes for one on Saturday in Atlanta.
South Region: No. 11 Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers (31-5) vs. No. 9 Kansas State Wildcats (25-11)
Time: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Philips Arena (Atlanta)
Keys for Loyola (Chicago)
The Ramblers' defensive intensity won a Missouri Valley regular-season championship, the conference's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament at Arch Madness, and now has them on the doorstep of the Final Four. Three opponents capable of putting up big offensive numbers, including a Nevada team that ranked among the nation's most efficient scoring lineups, could not reach 70 points against Loyola.
Against Kansas State, however, coach Porter Moser's bunch sees an opponent even more comfortable playing a low-scoring style than the Ramblers. The Wildcats successfully pulled UMBC and Kentucky, two teams with outstanding perimeter-scoring options, into veritable rock fights.
Facing the K-State defense can have a quality akin to running in quicksand, particularly for a team with poor shot selection. In addition to outstanding defense, Loyola's flourished this season with methodical ball movement and savvy shot choice. The Ramblers can dictate the pace on offense with any one of four shooters averaging better than 55 percent from inside the 3-point arc, and three dangerous long-range shooters in Donte Ingram, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes.
Keys for Kansas State
Bruce Weber's Wildcats have outmuscled and frustrated opponents through the NCAA Tournament, forcing them into long scoring droughts that give Kansas State cushion to build leads. Falling behind 8-to-10 points to a K-State bunch that ranks No. 307 in tempo, according to KenPom.com, is comparable to trailing a faster opponent by 20.
And in those moments Kansas State takes a lead, panic can set in.
Loyola isn't the kind of team built to panic, having rallied from deficits in all three of their Tournament wins. But the Ramblers also have not seen a defense as capable of squeezing the life out of its opponent in quite the same way as Kansas State.
The Wildcats are not a great 3-point shooting team, so don't expect them to come out gunning. However, if Bruce Brown and Xavier Sneed can score effectively early, Kansas State is built to frustrate Loyola in a way Miami, Tennessee and Nevada could not.
Picking against both Loyola and Kansas State has been a folly throughout this Tournament. They rode similar styles to the cusp of the Final Four, and one is going to bow out to the kind of basketball that forced out a series of favorites over the past two weeks.
Loyola's penchant for the dramatic, which means falling behind early, is not well-suited to an opponent like Kansas State. However, the Ramblers' more efficient offense gives them a clear advantage against the equally defensive-minded Wildcats.
Loyola's outstanding shooting will make the difference for the Ramblers, and Porter Moser will coach a team into the Final Four 20 years after his late mentor, Rick Majerus, did the same.
Prediction: Loyola (Chicago) 61, Kansas State 56
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)