INDIANAPOLIS — Illinois was already in trouble, already in offensive disarray, already deep into an afternoon of stunning futility against the most beguiling defense in college basketball. And at the 4:40 mark of the first half came the play that crystallized how ready No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago was for the ballyhooed No. 1 seed from downstate.
A lob pass went into 7’ 1”, 285-pound monolith Kofi Cockburn, who caught it just a few feet from the basket. The pass went over the head of Loyola’s own pillar of strength, 6’ 9” 255-pound Cameron Krutwig, who was roaming around in perpetual defensive motion—hedging ball screens outside and banging bodies inside, gumming everything up.
This play looked like a win for Illinois, about to end in a backboard-shaking dunk for Cockburn. But as the ball was in flight toward him, Loyola’s Lucas Williamson sprinted in from near the corner to position himself between Cockburn and the rim. And then Krutwig applied the sandwich from the outside. And then here came Marquise Kennedy flashing in from the opposite wing to encircle the Illini big man like Custer at Little Bighorn.
Cockburn still tried to go over the top of the smaller Ramblers for the basket. But the 6’ 1” Kennedy rose up and swatted the shot away from behind, then scored at the other end 18 seconds later. The score was Loyola 28, Illinois 16, and it became pretty clear where this was headed.
The Harry Potter scarves waved at the Loyola end of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the Illinois fans felt the dread of a soul-crushing loss growing at the other end. The Ramblers were better, and the Ramblers were back in the business of slaying giants in the NCAA tournament.
The final score was 71–58. There was nothing flukish about it. The Illini, champions of the Big Ten tournament and a trendy national championship pick, never led for a single second.
Disrespected by the NCAA selection committee with a No. 8 seed after a dominant 24–4 season in the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference, Loyola made its statement loud and clear. They’re happy to have 101-year-old nun Sister Jean back on the tournament trail with them, but they don’t need her to seek divine intervention. They’re good enough as is to be in Indy long enough to pay taxes and register to vote.
“We’ve been there before,” said coach Porter Moser, and that was a key distinction. The team the committee tried to stuff into a Cinderella outfit was actually far more experienced on this stage than the Illini. “I’ve said this before as the coach of Loyola: it’s amazing what you can do when everyone believes.”
That was part of the mantra three years ago, when the Ramblers made an epic Final Four surge as a No. 11 seed. But even that run didn’t have a victory quite like this one. The ’18 team defeated teams seeded sixth, third, seventh and ninth to reach the national semifinals; this time, they took down a big dog.
There are just two players still around that played on the 2017–18 team, Krutwig and Williamson (a third, Aher Uguak, was on the roster but sat out as a transfer). They are the heart-and-soul seniors, wholeheartedly having bought everything Moser was selling and now passing it down to the younger players as it was passed down to them. This is tradition in action.
“That’s how it works,” Moser said. “To sustain a program, you need the older guys pouring into the younger guys.”
And you need a coach to concoct the potion that the older guys pour. Every leader in sports talks about the importance of “culture,” but Moser is among the foremost creators of it in college basketball. What he did after the game Sunday was a prime example.
When the horn sounded, guard Braden Norris slammed the ball down jubilantly on the March Madness logo and the celebration began. But after all the hugs and a group salutation of Sister Jean and the other fans, the Ramblers headed to the locker room. That’s when Moser called them back out onto the floor to soak it in a little longer.
The team mobbed Krutwig during his postgame CBS interview, then hung out with Moser for his as well. Then they took a longer curtain call with fans and families, who waved and cheered from the upper deck.
“I felt like against Georgia Tech (after beating the Yellow Jackets Friday) we just took off,” he said. “I always tell them, ‘Let’s enjoy the moment, enjoy that win.’ Our fans were there. We haven’t had fans all year, and they didn’t want to leave. … I wanted them to stay out and enjoy it because that etches in your memory, that moment right there, and feeling all the work you’ve put in, all the effort you do to stay together, sacrifices you make, especially this year.”
Through the messiest season ever, Loyola has maintained the defensive DNA that made it such a tough out in 2018. The Ramblers strangled the Missouri Valley Conference all season and have kept on suffocating opponents here in Indy.
Georgia Tech was held to its lowest point total (60) since Feb. 10. Then Illinois was held to its fewest points of the season, as the free-flowing Illini found themselves up against a team that gives up nothing in transition and is even tougher in the half court.
The Ramblers’ defensive gameplan and execution Sunday was basketball art. Already a team that switches, rotates and helps expertly, the Ramblers took it up another level to shut down national Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu outside and to make Cockburn work for his points inside. They guarded the way only Loyola guards.
“No one was doing anything out of their body, out of their mind,” Krutwig said. “We just stuck to the game plan.”
They squeezed the driving lanes on Dosunmu in pick-and-roll situations, with help defenders stepping up and forcing him to pass or settle for perimeter shots. He scored nine points, his fewest since Jan. 6, 2020. He took just 10 shots. He committed six turnovers, seemingly unprepared for the flashing hands of the Ramblers that kept knocking the ball away from him.
And as noted above, they swarmed Cockburn when he caught the ball, forcing a guy who doesn’t pass much (five assists on the year) to give up the rock. Cockburn finished with 21 points, but it was a lot of work.
The key to much of the defensive scheme was Krutwig. All he had to do was take on two NBA-level talents in completely different ways, often on the same possession.
“I hold him to such a high standard,” Moser said. “He'll make six great plays in a row and he'll mess up on one, and I'm about to lose my mind. He always looks at me like, ‘Coach, settle down.’
“I think the reason why his defense is good is because he's got a mental motor. He sees it starting to come and develop, and then he's ahead of the play, and I thought his defense on ball screens and his defense in the post was excellent. … A huge assignment. You're sitting there saying, ‘Krut, you've got to ball screen D against Ayo, an All-American but then you've got to post D against Kofi, an All-American in the post. Have at it, big boy.’ “
He had at it. And he won the day.
The fact that Krutwig resembles a Chicago bus driver more than an elite basketball player adds to the Loyola mystique. Between the receding hairline, the unfortunate mustache and the large but unsculpted body, he’s not exactly first-guy-off-the-bus material. Or first-guy-in-the-layup-line material, since he can’t jump over a comic book.
Basically, you wonder how he can play the same sport as Cockburn, much less get the better of the matchup. And then you see him in deliberate, crafty action, a pachydermal prisoner of gravity who is a ballerina with the ball.
Krutwig plays point center, with the Loyola offense flowing through and around him. Playing with his back to the basket much of the time he somehow sees all. Handoffs, bounce passes and screens create opportunities for his teammates, which is how he’s racked up more than 300 career assists. And when it’s time for him to score, the array of pivots, pump fakes and other post moves is a poor man’s Kevin McHale throwback.
This was his 129th college basketball game, and perhaps his finest: 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and a career-high four steals. The NBA has no interest in him, but he was the best player on the court against Illinois. And he could be halfway to a second Final Four.
This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone but the selection committee. If you watched Loyola play and took the labels off the teams, there’s no way the Ramblers would have been a No. 8 seed. This isn’t the plucky little No. 11 seed coming out of nowhere like 2018.
“It's definitely a different story,” Krutwig said. “We came into this tournament ranked like 17th in the country in the AP poll. We got an 8 seed. That's just the hand we were dealt. We feel like we're one of the best teams in the country, and I think we showed that these last two games.”
Moser is certainly one of the best coaches in the country, which is why people are trying to wish him to Indiana or Minnesota or Marquette. He could take one of those jobs, or he could continue building Butler By Lake Michigan.
For now, neither of those options matter. The future can wait. Porter Moser and Loyola are firmly established here, in the present—snatching souls with defense, soaking up the joy of March Madness, and not planning on leaving Indy until April.
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