Opinion: Porter Moser has the Ramblers busting brackets again, but this time it’s no surprise

INDIANAPOLIS — The first time a mid-major turns everybody’s bracket into confetti, it’s a sweet story. Plucky underdogs who everybody can get behind. All the better if a nun who’s pushing 100 and providing the team with scouting reports is along for the ride.

When it happens again three years later, it ceases to be a gimmick. Still a good story, but one that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Just ask top-seeded Illinois.

Loyola-Chicago served notice that its Final Four run in 2018 was no fluke, upending the Illini – a trendy pick to make the title game, if not win the whole NCAA men’s tournament – in decisive fashion Sunday afternoon. Given the upheaval that’s already occurred – this is the first time four teams seeded 13 or worse have reached the second round – there’s no reason Loyola can’t find itself among the last teams standing.

The eighth-seeded Ramblers play the winner of Oregon State-Oklahoma State next weekend in the Sweet 16.

“We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country, and I think we showed that these last two games,” Cameron Krutwig said after the 71-58 victory. “You can't not think that you're one of the best teams in the country. You've got to think that and you've got to play like that, and we're excited to get to the next one.

“We definitely think we’re one of the best teams in the country, but you’ve got to back it up with your play.”

No problem there.

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Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser has the Ramblers on another run in the men's NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Michael Caterina, Indianapolis Star, USA TODAY Sports)

Illinois has two of the best players in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and no shortage of additional weapons. But Loyola never allowed the Illini to get comfortable. It scored the first basket of the game, and dictated the pace and rhythm for the rest of the game.

Even when Illinois did manage to make runs – Cockburn converted a three-point play and scored on a monstrous dunk to get the Illini within single digits at halftime – Loyola didn’t buckle, weathering the spurt and recommitting to its game plan. Cockburn finished with 21 points, but Dosunmu had just nine. It was his fewest points since Jan. 5, 2020, and the 58 points was a season-low for Illinois.

“It’s not just a 48-hour scout, we’ve been working our whole season on defense,” Krutwig said. “I guess people kind of forgot or something, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year. I guess people chalk it up to maybe being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, play the right way, and we follow the scout and follow the scheme.”

Krutwig and Lucas Williamson are the only players left from the 2018 Final Four team, but the foundation is the same: stingy defense, unselfish offense and an unshakeable faith. And I don’t just mean the influence of Sister Jean, who hectored Loyola and NCAA officials until they allowed her to come to Indianapolis, her first trip outside the facility where she lives since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Ramblers aren’t flashy. You won’t hear them trash talking or see them stunting for the cameras. That huddle behind Krutwig as he did his post-game interview? Coach Porter Moser had to tell them to do that, urging them to soak in every moment of this incredible experience.

“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, the sacrifices we made this year,” Moser said. “I just didn't want to rush in the locker room. Stand out there and enjoy it.”

But Loyola is not starry-eyed and just happy to be here. It might be a mid-major, but the Final Four run taught Krutwig and Williamson that they can play with anyone, and they’ve helped Moser pass that onto the rest of the team.

That’s what makes them so dangerous. When Moser or one of his players says they believe they can beat someone, be it Missouri Valley rival Drake or top-seeded Illinois, it’s not a cliché or a canned answer.

“I've said this before as the coach of Loyola: It's amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe,” Moser said. “This wasn't just the switch they flipped the last 48 hours. These guys have invested in what we do and they believe in it. It’s just a great group of guys that believe.”

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Gonzaga was the little school that could. A warm and fuzzy story about a small school from the Pacific Northwest that would wreak havoc every couple of years.

Now look at the ‘Zags. They’re a bona fide national powerhouse, NCAA runners-up in 2017 and a No. 1 seed four times in the last eight tournaments. They’re the overall No. 1 seed this year, and are looking to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go unbeaten.

If a team like Gonzaga can do it, it’s not such a stretch to believe Loyola can, too.

“If they can beat Illinois,” Sister Jean said last week, “they can beat anybody.”

Three years ago, that idea might have seemed preposterous. But Loyola has made it a reality, one that’s impossible to deny.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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