The paths were quite different, but the results were the same. First-round wins for Loyola (Chicago) and Tennessee mean that the Ramblers (29-5, 15-3 Missouri Valley) and Volunteers (26-8, 13-5 SEC) will meet in the second round Saturday in Dallas.
Loyola makes its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 1985. After the thriller against Miami, Loyola now has 29 wins, which tied the school record set in 1963 when the Ramblers cut down the nets as NCAA champions. Tennessee, meanwhile, is in the midst of its 21st trip to the NCAA Tournament, first since 2014 and first under third-year head coach Rick Barnes.
This will be the inaugural meeting between these two teams. Tennessee is 5-8 all-time against the Missouri Valley Conference, while Loyola won its only game against the SEC this season, winning by six points at Florida in December.
Loyola did what over one-third of ESPN brackets said it would do, which was to upset Miami in the opening round. But when Miami held a one-point lead with under 10 seconds to play, those predictions looked awfully shaky. Enter Donte Ingram, who caught a pass on the edge of the midcourt logo with three seconds left and promptly drilled a 3-pointer with fractions of a second remaining. That gave the Ramblers an improbable 64-62 win over the Hurricanes, Loyola’s first against a current ACC team since winning at Notre Dame in 1994.
Ingram’s shot will go down in the history books for Loyola, but what head coach Porter Moser has to love is the balanced offense. Four Ramblers scored in double figures, paced by Clayton Custer’s 14 points.
Tennessee comes into this matchup after a convincing 73-47 thumping of Wright State on Thursday. Lamonte Turner led the way with 19 for the Volunteers, with Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams chipping in with 15 and 14, respectively.
While those three were the only players in double figures for Tennessee, the defense on the Raiders was more than enough. Wright State was held under 25 points in each half, with the Vols holding an 11-point lead at halftime before breaking it open in the second half.
South Region: No. 11 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (29-5) vs. No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers (26-8)
Time: 6:10 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: American Airlines Center (Dallas)
Keys for Loyola Chicago
Loyola brings to the table a two-pronged mantra that is as perfect a recipe for success as can be: efficient shooting and lock-down defense. The Ramblers shoot at a 50.7 percent clip from the field, which is best in the MVC and third in the nation. On the other end, they allow 62.2 points per game, good enough for second in the conference and fifth nationally.
Though the first ingredient wasn’t as sharp for the Ramblers against Miami — they shot 47.3 percent in the win — the defense stood tall and held Miami at 62 points, right at their defensive season average. A point of emphasis for Loyola should be in the painted area, with both points in the paint and second-chance points. Loyola lost in both of those categories (minus-4 in points in the paint, minus-10 in second-chance points) so those margins will need to improve against the dominant paint presence of Tennessee.
Keys for Tennessee
Like Loyola, Tennessee’s defense is among the best in college basketball this season, ranking fourth in the KenPom defensive efficiency metric behind Virginia, Cincinnati and Texas Tech. The defense is especially solid against shots from 3-point range. The Vols held Wright State to just 19 percent from deep, well below their defensive average of 31.9 percent.
A similar performance will be needed against Loyola — who was 8-for-21 from distance vs. Miami — as just a couple of quick threes could drastically swing the momentum in what projects to be a tight game the whole way.
Points will be at a premium in this game, as both teams lead their respective conferences in scoring defense (Tennessee allows 66.4 points per game while Loyola allows 62.2). In this type of a game, look for offensive rebounds and free throws to be critical.
Teams that award themselves extra possessions and trips to the line tend to succeed in close, low-scoring contests, and Tennessee has a sizable advantage in both those categories. Expect this one to be close down the stretch, but Tennessee’s size and veteran leadership should be enough to move the Big Orange to the program’s eighth Sweet 16 appearance and first since 2014.
Prediction: Tennessee 68, Loyola Chicago 61
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)