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Loyola Ramblers vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Prediction: NCAA Tournament First Round Preview

Loyola Chicago Ramblers vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Prediction: NCAA Tournament First Round Preview

Four years after a remarkable run to the Final Four, Loyola Chicago no longer wears Cinderella's slipper. The Ramblers are fast becoming NCAA Tournament stalwarts, even with a new head coach — Drew Valentine replaced Porter Moser following last year's Sweet 16 finish — and some tough tests in this year's Missouri Valley.

The former underdog is now a favorite against an Ohio State team that peaked at No. 13 in the AP Top 25. While the Buckeyes endured a late-season dip, Chris Holtmann's bunch has more than enough firepower to do more than just advance past the favored Ramblers.

South Region: No. 10 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (25-7) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (19-11)

Time: Friday, March 18 at 12:15 p.m. ET
Where: Petersen Events Center (Pittsburgh)
Spread: Loyola -2

Keys for Loyola Chicago

Three-point shooting has been huge for Loyola throughout this season. Per metrics, 36.3 percent of the Ramblers' points come from beyond the arc, where they shoot a stellar 38 percent. Braden Norris is one of the top gunners in this NCAA Tournament at 43.5 percent on 147 attempts, while Lucas Williamson and Ryan Schwieger have hit at 39.2 and 37.7 percent clips, respectively.

The Ramblers continuing to stroke at the rate they have all season would spell trouble for Ohio State, which has struggled to defend the 3-pointer. Opponents have hit 34 percent against the Buckeyes, and almost 31 percent of the points scored on Ohio State have come from beyond the arc.

While the Buckeyes have undeniable talent with All-American (third team) E.J. Liddell and fast-rising NBA prospect Malaki Branham, Loyola hitting from deep early and building a cushion will allow it to dictate the tempo against an opponent that ranks in the nation's bottom third for pace of play.

Keys for Ohio State

Joey Brunk touted Loyola's "toughness" ahead of Friday's matchup. Ohio State's best bet is to figuratively punch the Ramblers in the nose, attacking inside and imposing a physical style on the smaller team early.

Asserting the pace is to the Buckeyes' decided advantage, and in addition to counter-punching Loyola's toughness, Ohio State has the playmakers to force the Ramblers into a more frenetic game than they're used to. The surging Branham is a major X-factor.

"He's got everything that a [NBA] scout would look for. He's got the size. He's got the shooting ability," Loyola's Williamson said in Thursday's media session of Branham. "He can shoot, pass and dribble."

Final Analysis

There's no question Loyola Chicago comes into Friday's matchup on a more positive trajectory after winning Arch Madness. Ohio State, meanwhile has lost four of its past five, including to a middling Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament. Losing Kyle Young and Zed Key thins Ohio State's roster, which might make the Buckeyes' ability to set the pace more difficult.

Ohio State has an advantage in that Liddell can take over, and Branham looks to be on the cusp of really breaking out. But against a veteran team like Loyola, turning it on after struggling for much of the past month may be too tall an order for the Buckeyes.

Prediction: Loyola 68, Ohio State 61 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing.