The Loyola Ramblers scored one of the college basketball season’s biggest upsets, when they knocked the #1 seed Illinois Fighting Illini out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round. For the Illini, it continues a long frustrating “tradition” of failing to advance to a March Madness round that has a nickname (Sweet 16, Elite 8 etc.), as they haven’t reached one since 2005.
For Loyola, it showed what a mid-major can do to a bigger power conference team when you have an astute coach with a great game plan, and players who can execute it.
Loyola stifled USA Today Player of the Year Ayo Dosunmu, and they contained Kofi Cockburn, this year’s Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.
Dosunmu, now on the roster of his hometown Chicago Bulls (who open the regular season tonight), had his worst game since his freshman year, at the absolute worst time, as he was limited to single digit scoring. Loyola defenders were effectively able to cut him off from getting the types of shots that he wanted, and he never established any kind of rhythm.
As for Cockburn, the Ramblers effectively double teamed him, immediately, on all paint touches, and the big man couldn’t kick the ball out fast enough/his teammates weren’t rapid enough in ball rotation to the open man.
Loyola took advantage of Cockburn’s weaknesses as a passer, and their defenders were able to close out the space quickly enough that the Illini offense never got going.
The game was actually more lopsided than the final score might indicate, as then Loyola coach Porter Moser conceptualized and executed a smart game plan, which Brad Underwood and his staff were never able to adjust to.
The Ramblers took control of the tempo and the flow, from the tip, and never let go. Moser left to take the Oklahoma job, and an assistant on his staff, Drew Valentine, stepped in and replaced him. Now Valentine leads his Ramblers into a season in which they strive to defend their Missouri Valley conference title.
At the Chicago College Basketball Media Luncheon, I had an exclusive with Valentine, where we discussed how and why they were able to contain the Illini dynamic duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Valentine said that they had both the defensive scheme and the defenders to execute it, this past March Madness.
“Lucas (Williamson, guard, grad student) I think is the best defensive player in the country,” said Valentine.
“I think that Aher Uguak (forward, grad student) is one of the best defensive players in the country, and also Tate Hall (forward/guard grad student) saw a decent amount of time guarding Ayo as well. Those three guys all have strength, size, physicality and toughness.”
“Most importantly, they have the mentality and the IQ to go out there and execute a scheme. We tried to really crowd his space, get the ball out of his hands and make him not feel comfortable, and those guys did a great job executing the game plan.”
He also added: “he’s a really good downhill guy, so we tried to make him go east-west instead of north-south, and he’s really good going with his right hand, so we tried to make him go to his left hand as much as possible.”
In turning the conversation to Kofi Cockburn, how they got him uncomfortable and limited the damage he could infliction on the Ramblers, Valentine had the following to say: “I think we work on rotations a lot, and we work on flying around a lot.”
“We have guys that are used to different post schemes, and kind of tricky things we do when we guard the post, our guys are used to it, and it was late in the year and they bought it- they wanted to win that game and I attribute the success to that.”
Now we’ll see, this season, if Underwood and Illinois can learn from last March’s disaster and move on; potentially advance deeper in the tourney this season.
Loyola’s one and only exhibition this season is Nov 3 against UW-Stout (sounds like a good winter beer that one would pair with a beef stroganoff!) Their opener, the very first game of the Drew Valentine era, is Nov 9 against Coppin St.
The Illini have an exhibition this Saturday, against St. Francis. Things get started for real, for them, the same night as Loyola, Nov 9, when they will host Jackson State.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGN, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune.