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Loyola’s Cinderella Run Might Not End at the Sweet 16

Another game, another thrilling last-second win by the Ramblers. It may all seem unlikely for an 11-seed, but this team is much better than its tournament position suggested.

Loyola v Tennessee Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Luther Vandross lied to Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers got Two Shining Moments. First was their buzzer-beater over Miami, the best moment of the NCAA tournament’s opening day. But the Ramblers weren’t content to win just one game in their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985. Saturday, Loyola faced third-seeded Tennessee in the round of 32, and once again trailed 62-61 in a game’s closing seconds. And once again, the Ramblers moved on with a game-winning shot:

This time, the bucket was courtesy of Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer—we can call it Custer’s Last Shot. And unlike Donte Ingram’s beautiful and ill-advised 30-footer, it didn’t swish in; it teetered around the rim and off the backboard before dropping. That took a few extra ticks off the clock, making the Volunteers’ ensuing game-winning attempt a bit tougher and made the moment seem a bit less sensical and more magical.

But it’s easy to seem magical when your fans are Gryffindor cosplayers.

Everything about Loyola makes the Ramblers the perfect Cinderella story. They’re a double-digit seed that has reached the Sweet 16. They haven’t been to the tournament in three decades. All their games have ended in buzzer-beaters. Their mascot name is unique and fun to say—RAMBLERS! They have a lovable 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean, who has become more of a March Madness hero than anybody on the team.

America already loved Sister Jean—she’s a nun who provides the team detailed scouting reports and prays for unbiased refereeing—but the adoration reached a new level Saturday, when the news was revealed that Jean filled out a bracket and only put her beloved Ramblers into the Sweet 16. This was as far as she thought they could go. They’re such a great underdog story that even their biggest fan had to be realistic about their chances. Divine intervention, apparently, could get them only so far.

But there’s something that sets Loyola-Chicago aside from the Cinderellas. They’re really good. The team came into the tournament ranked 45th in Ken Pomeroy’s rating, which indicates they probably should have been an 8- or 9-seed. The fact the Ramblers were apparently a conference-tournament loss from missing the tourney field says more about the selection committee’s systemic bias against mid-major programs than it does about Loyola’s skill level. They beat Florida at Gainesville in their only game of the season against a major-conference team before the NCAA tournament, then closed out their regular season by winning 17 of 18 games in the Missouri Valley Conference—a perennially solid mid-major league—with 10 of those wins by double digits. Their best player, Clayton Custer, was recruited to Iowa State and a few other Big 12 schools.

They’re one of the most efficient shooting teams in the country—13th in 2-point field goal percentage, at 56.5 percent; 12th in 3-point shooting percentage, at 40 percent. And they’re even better on defense—their adjusted offensive rating is 61st in the nation, while their adjusted defensive rating is 28th. Their upsets haven’t been caused by particularly phenomenal shooting performances—they’re actually shooting well below their season averages for the tournament, which makes sense given the level of competition in their past two games. But playing against higher seeds hasn’t changed the way they’ve played all season. Their ball movement is gorgeous—they’re 26th in the nation in assist percentage and have upgraded that by assisting on 34 of 48 made field goals during the tournament.

The Ramblers’ win over Miami wasn’t a huge upset—the Hurricanes were favored by 1.5 points, with KenPom saying the Ramblers had a 49 percent chance of winning. They were 4.5-point underdogs against Tennessee—a decent amount, but still, the Ramblers were considered to have a decent chance at winning.

Loyola’s region is in ashes: Top-seeded Virginia lost, the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. (UMBC is more of a conventional Cinderella—we didn’t have any reason to suspect that the Retrievers might be capable of making magic.) Arizona, the team with the possible no. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, lost to Buffalo in the first round. The only teams remaining from the top half of the bracket are 2-seed Cincinnati, 5-seed Kentucky, and 7-seed Nevada—and either Cincinnati or Nevada will lose on Sunday. If Nevada were to win over Cincinnati, the Ramblers will have already beaten their toughest opponent en route to the Final Four. If that happened and Kansas State took down Kentucky, the Ramblers would arguably be the best team remaining in their bracket.

Luther Vandross might have lied more than previously thought. There’s a serious chance that the Ramblers ramble on.