DALLAS — Jim Larranaga knew someone would make the connection. When a reporter referenced his knowledge of how an 11-seed can pull off an NCAA Tournament upset, he made a playful poker face.
“I’ve heard that,” he deadpanned.
Even if Larranaga hadn’t coached the 2006 George Mason Patriots to the Final Four, the 68-year-old has been around long enough to know never to take a plucky mid-major lightly.
“My experience is the seeding doesn’t mean that much,” he said. “It’s how well you play.”
Larranaga knows his sixth-seeded Hurricanes (22-9) need to play “a very, very high level” to beat 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago (28-5) in their first-round matchup on Thursday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas (3:10 p.m., truTV). That’s not lip service to an underdog, either.
“They’re actually the favorite if you read all the prognosticators,” Larranaga said. “They’re calling them the Cinderella already. And we’ve got to be sure that we understand the caliber of our opponent has earned [them] an awful lot of respect.”
The Ramblers, the champions of the Mountain Valley Conference, are darlings in Chicago. They are dancing for the first time since 1985 and hoping for their first NCAA title since 1963. They are plenty confident, having won 10 in a row and 18 of 19.
And they are good. Larranaga is a devotee of the advanced stats website KenPom.com, which rates college teams in various metrics. KenPom loves Loyola. It ranks them 40th nationally in combined offensive and defensive efficiency, and 25th in defensive efficiency. Their effective field goal percentage, a blend of shooting percentage with weight given to 3-pointers, is eighth. Those numbers are adjusted for strength of opponent, so don’t dismiss them based on Loyola’s mid-major status. Consider, too, they went to Gainesville on Dec. 6 and beat Florida — the sixth seed in the NCAA’s East region — 65-59.
The Ramblers are a skilled group of shooters, ranking 12th nationally in 3-point shooting (40 percent and 14th on 2-pointers (56.5). They also defend shots well, ranking 37th and 42nd in defense against 3s and 2s, respectively, with a mostly-man scheme.
Miami, four spots ahead of Loyola in combined efficiency, is a larger, arguably more athletic team with a couple weaknesses (free-throw shooting percentage, 66.3 percent; 324th of 351 Division I teams). UM has an above-average offense (51st) and defense (45th), and has limited its turnovers to 16.5 percent of its possessions (48th). It also defends the perimeter well (41st in 3-point shooting against).
The Canes are also relatively inexperienced; they average 1.25 years of experience (307th; 1.70 is the national average). Loyola (1.80) is 146th.
“We just go out there and play hard, and everything will take care of itself,” said guard Ja’Quan Newton, UM’s only senior. “We’ve got full respect for the team. They’ve got good and talented guards (led by MVC player of the year Clayton Custer). They’ve got a great big man (6-9, 260-pound Cameron Krutwig). So we’re going to take advantage of the pick-and-roll and stuff like that.”
Custer, a 6-1, 185-pound junior who put up 13.4 points and shoots 44 percent from long range, isn’t buying the hype.
“I mean, we’ve definitely seen all this stuff,” he said. “It’s hard not to see it with today’s social media and stuff like that. We have the ultimate respect for Miami, and we know they’re going to be a really, really good team. They’re one of the top teams in the ACC, so we know they’re going to be good. We’ve done a good job all year of respecting our opponents for sure, but at the same time, we have the confidence that we can go in and play against anybody and win games in this tournament.”
Coach Porter Moser seems Chicago as a city of distractions and “I love it,” he said. “There’s been more people talking about Loyola basketball than in 30-some years. And the guys are handling it because they’re high-character guys. Every practice, every film session has been locked in. And obviously the NCAA Tournament is another level of attention, which is great for them. It’s what they wanted.”
Miami hopes the buzz is short-lived.