Two of the 2018 Tournament's Cinderella stories clash in the topsy-turvy South Region
One advanced on a pair of buckets scored in the final seconds. The other rallied from a combined 39-point deficit over two contests. Loyola-Chicago and Nevada provided some of the most memorable moments of this NCAA Tournament in their first four combined games. The two now meet with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
Given their penchant for the dramatic this March, expect more fireworks.
This surprise matchup of the No. 7 seed and No. 11 seeds features a contrast in styles. Nevada scores as effectively as any team in the country, boasting an adjusted offensive efficiency rank of No. 6, per KenPom.com. Loyola, meanwhile, has made its bones on the defensive end. The Ramblers rank No. 27 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and with a per-game yield of just 62.2 points, are now the stingiest defense left in the Tournament.
South Region: No. 11 Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers (30-5) vs. No. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack (29-7)
Time: 7:07 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Philips Arena (Atlanta)
Keys for Loyola (Chicago)
Over its last seven games, the 62 points both Miami and Tennessee scored in Loyola's First and Second Round wins were the most any opponent has mustered. A great defensive team all season long, the Ramblers have upped the intensity for the stretch run.
They have not necessarily done so generating a ton of turnovers; they forced 16 against Miami, but just seven vs. Tennessee. Loyola also hasn't completely shut down the 3-point arc, with the Vols having hit 36 percent in the Second Round, and the Hurricanes connecting on 44 percent. However, the Ramblers' ability to dictate tempo — extending possessions on both offense and defense — forced those games into a style better suited to them.
Loyola likely won't be able to generate many turnovers, with Nevada ranked No. 1 nationally in turnover percentage, but the Ramblers can force the Wolf Pack to shoot deep in the shot clock. On the offensive end, taking high-percentage shots is critical for the Ramblers' Elite Eight hopes; in losses, Loyola's offensive output dips. Good looks at the basket are paramount with this team's methodical style.
Four of Loyola's primary rotation players (Aundre Jackson, Clayton Custer, Marques Towns and Cameron Krutwig) shoot 55 percent or better from inside the 3-point. Custer and breakout Tournament star Donte Ingram (48 points in the First and Second Round) shoot at least 40 percent from deep. The Ramblers need to maintain those steady numbers to advance.
Keys for Nevada
For the first time in this Tournament, Nevada enjoys a distinct advantage in terms of size and athleticism. This in stark contrast to a Mountain West Conference Tournament loss to San Diego State, and the First and Second Round contests in which the Wolf Pack fell behind big vs. Texas and Cincinnati. However, it's more in line with the majority of the regular season, when Nevada won 26 games.
That bodes well for Thursday's forecast. Brothers Cody and Caleb Martin complement one another nicely, with Cody scoring effectively on the interior, and Caleb connecting on 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip. Veteran Jordan Caroline plays a dynamic inside-outside game, and may be the Pack's X-factor. Loyola could struggle to keep him off the glass and out of the paint, particularly with the Martins are effective early slashing and shooting from deep.
If not Caroline, sharp-shooter Kendall Stephens may hold the key to getting Nevada through the Sweet 16 and beyond. He's one of the most consistent 3-point shooters left in the Tournament, hitting at a rate just below 45 percent. His ability to stretch the defense is just what Nevada needs to pull Loyola out of its tempo-controlling style and speed up the pace of play.
Critical for the Pack on Thursday, as it's been all season, is avoiding foul trouble. Coach Eric Musselman does not typically go any deeper than six players in his rotation. If Loyola draws fouls early — which San Diego State accomplished in the MWC Tournament — Nevada may be in trouble.
From Musselman's high energy on the sideline — mirrored in the stands by daughter Mariah — to the enthusiasm of Loyola-Chicago's Sister Jean, these two teams have provided some of the quintessential moments of the Tournament. It's unfortunate one must go home, but the Final Four is oh-so-close.
Both teams have walked a tight rope to get to this point. Another nail-biter seems likely, especially with Loyola's methodical style. Nevada must dictate pace, which its shown it can do in the first two rounds, but do so earlier. There won't be any coming back if the Pack falls behind this Ramblers bunch big early.
Any of Nevada's four primary weapons — the Martins, Caroline and Stephens — can go off. That gives the Pack an edge that should carry them into the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Nevada 69, Loyola (Chicago) 66
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)