'We're definitely the underdog': Loyola hoping to re-create magic of 2018 run
Unlike 2018, the Loyola Ramblers aren't going to sneak up on anybody in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Even so, coach Porter Moser is doing all he can to sell his 8th-seeded team as the underdog in Friday's (3 p.m., TBS) opening-round Midwest Region game against No. 9 seed Georgia Tech at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"We're definitely the underdog," Moser said. "There's no doubt about that. They're the ACC champs so we feel we're chasing."
The Ramblers boast a gaudy 24-4 record and both the regular-season and tournament championships in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have the No. 1 defense in Division I and a No. 17 ranking in the AP poll.
The Ramblers and many observers felt they were dealt a bad hand by the NCAA Selection Committee, which gave them the No. 8 seed instead of a 6 or a 7. The upshot is that if the Ramblers beat Georgia Tech -- and that's certainly no gimme -- they could face top-seeded Illinois Sunday if the Illini take care of No. 16 seed Drexel Friday.
The Ramblers' chances may have gotten better in the opener after it was reported Georgia Tech's big man, Moses Wright, will likely miss Friday's game. Reports earlier in the week said the Yellow Jackets had a positive COVID case in their traveling party.
Wright, a 6-foot-9 senior, is the ACC player of the year. He averaged 17.9 points per game and 8 rebounds.
As for the Ramblers, they're trying to be diplomatic about not having a higher seed.
"I know the committee has a hard job," Moser said. "We did what we could control. ... They use the NCAA Evaluation Tool. According to that, we were 9. One through 4 got all the 1 seeds. Five through 8 got all the 2 seeds. No. 9 got an 8 seed. So we've just got to control what we can control."
Moser and team leader Cameron Krutwig said the team hasn't talked about using that as motivation -- not yet anyway.
"I didn't want to fan that flame too early," Moser said. "That flame is going to be flamed as we move closer. For us, I've always told the guys we've got to control what we can control. There's no use me being on this huge platform. It is what it is. What I like is everybody else is recognizing it. I've seen a lot of people talk about it. It just didn't align with the metrics.
"I haven't made a big deal out of it yet with the guys because we're focusing on Georgia Tech. This is our opponent. That's been our main focus."
Krutwig echoed those sentiments and paid respect to the Yellow Jackets, who finished the regular season just outside the AP Top 25.
"We're not really big into that type of stuff.," said Krutwig, a native of Algonquin and a graduate of Jacobs High School. "Obviously, the numbers and everything and the metrics were on our side. It worked out how it worked out. We got a tough draw in the first round, ACC champions. They're playing really well right now.
"We've got to come out and be ready to go. We haven't really talked about that. That really hasn't' fueled our fire much. There is a feeling on the team that we thought that we should have been higher, but, hey, that's how it works."
None of it will matter when the game begins, and the Ramblers will have their chance to prove that they're a mid-major team worthy of playing against the big schools, just as they did on their Final Four run three years ago.
In Georgia Tech, the Ramblers will be facing a team on an eight-game winning streak, with a walkover into the ACC final after their semifinal game with Virginia was canceled because of COVID concerns with Virginia.
Like the Ramblers, the Yellow Jackets are an aggressive bunch on defense. Each team boasts its conferences' defensive player of the year: Lucas Williamson of Loyola and Jose Alvarado of Georgia Tech.
"They're playing like one of the best teams in the country right now," Krutwig said. "We've got a lot of respect for them. But the biggest threat is probably they turn you over a bunch. They're really physical. They like to play different zones and different man-to-man schemes. They like to pressure you and reach and poke. We're going to have to be tough with the ball and kind of cover up that zone."
The Missouri Valley is known for its tough defense, so the Ramblers should be well prepared for what Georgia Tech throws at them.
"Their whole lineup is concerning," Moser said. "To win that league, tournament, to do what they're doing, they've got a lot of different weapons. ... So there are some interesting dynamics. These guys, the way they defend, is the biggest concern."
Krutwig and Williamson were key parts of the Final Four team, and Moser also points out that forward Aher Uguak was on that squad, but he had to sit out after transferring from New Mexico.
So even though they might be underdogs, the Ramblers insist they're not just happy to be here.
"Last time we were here, our mindset was we wanted to enjoy the moment, but we were confident," Moser said. "That's the mindset. Enjoy the moment. Don't make the moment so big you can't perform. I felt we were really loose. When it was time to lock in, we were locked in.
"All of a sudden now, you have a couple of guys who have been through it. I noticed that after the conference tournament in the locker room. After we cut down the nets in St. Louis, about an hour's celebration, we're in the locker room. Krut and Lucas got us to where, 'As awesome as this is, guys, it gets better. It gets better.' They've heard that from me a million times. But when you have some of their peers saying that, it has that much of an effect, a positive effect."