The NCAA tournament bracket comes out in a little more than a week. It's never too early to scout Cinderellas you'll be advancing in your pool.
This year's most popular sleeper pick won't even be much of a sleeper, and it's a team we're quite familiar with in March Madness: Loyola Chicago.
The Ramblers' run to the Final Four in 2018 was one of the best stories the tournament has seen. It was a phenomenal streak from a No. 11 seed. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime tournament run from a school that has championship history but not a lot of recent success.
Three years later, Loyola has a team that is even better than that 2018 team that shocked everyone.
Loyola Chicago is an analytics darling
If you are just checking into the college basketball season and look up KenPom's popular team rankings, you might do a double take at No. 11. Ahead of many of the sports' best programs is Loyola Chicago.
The Ramblers looked the part on Friday as they started their run in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. They dissected Southern Illinois in a 74-49 win, easily covering as 17.5-point favorites at BetMGM. The MVC semifinals are Saturday and the championship is Sunday. It would be shocking if Loyola doesn't win the MVC's auto bid, but they seem safely in the field either way. Yahoo's Michael Lazarus had Loyola as a No. 10 seed in his big board on Friday.
Anyone who looks for teams that are under-seeded based on advanced metrics will be lining up to pick Loyola Chicago to go far in the tournament in their brackets, and betting on them as long as they're alive. If they're a 10 seed, that would be a rough draw for the higher-seeded team in that first-round matchup.
The Ramblers are going to be a tough out, and this time around they won't be a total unknown.
Loyola is rolling at 22-4
In 2018, even after a great tournament run, Loyola's final KenPom ranking was No. 31. That team was historic, but this seasons team appears to be better.
Loyola is 22-4 after Friday's win. Loyola lost by 14 at Wisconsin early in the season, but the other three losses were by 2, 5 and 1, with the last loss coming in overtime. It's a team with a lot of experience that is great at hitting shots (fifth in the nation in 2-point field-goal percentage) and phenomenal on defense.
The Ramblers are the top-ranked team in KenPom's defensive efficiency this season among 347 teams. Cameron Krutwig, a 6-9 forward who was a big part of that Final Four team as a freshman, leads the way. He averages 15 points a game on 58.6 percent shooting.
Everyone likes a strong mid-major team to bet on in March. Loyola has played that role before, and they might be an even stronger bet this time around.
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