Jean Dolores Smith turned 101 years old in August.
College basketball fans remember her as Sister Jean, the chaplain of the Loyola Chicago team, who became the star of the 2018 NCAA Tournament when her beloved Ramblers made an improbable run to the Final Four. It was the kind of thing that makes the NCAA Tournament the greatest spectacle in sports.
As 2021 takes over for 2020, could this weird season produce another Loyola Chicago?
One possibility: Loyola Chicago.
Sister Jean isn’t the only familiar face head coach Porter Moser has at his disposal. Cameron Krutwig, a freshman center with some nifty post moves on the Final Four team, is now a senior All-America candidate. Krutwig, an old-school type, doesn’t play above the rim, and he rarely attempts a shot from 3-point range. But he has improved his offensive rebounding, and his overall efficiency has him No. 8 in KenPom’s player of the year rankings.
He’s one of the best passers of any big man in the country. He had 10 assists in a win over Vanderbilt last season and seven against Illinois State last month — he scored 22 points in both games.
Moser lost a bunch of key pieces after the 2018 season, and the Ramblers regressed. But seniors Lucas Williamson and Aher Uguak have developed, helping Loyola Chicago to a 7-2 start (the losses came against Wisconsin and Richmond) to the season. The Ramblers are No. 47 at KenPom.com, highest ranking of any school outside the Power 6 conferences, the American Athletic, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and not named Gonzaga.
For their 3-year-old slippers to still fit, however, the Ramblers will have to win the Missouri Valley Conference. And that will be difficult because another major contender for 2021 Cinderella is a Loyola Chicago conference mate, 13-0 Drake. The Bulldogs are top-100 in efficiency on both ends of the court, No. 3 in 3-point shooting and one of the best overall rebounding teams in the country. They host Loyola Chicago on Sunday and Monday.
Two other Cinderella hopefuls to watch:
• Furman (8-3): The Paladins two leading scorers, 6-foot-3 guard Mike Bothwell and 6-8 wing Noah Gurley, are shooting a combined 51.6% from the field, including 41% from deep. Furman will have to navigate a difficult Southern Conference — the SoCon is ranked in the top half of conferences for the third straight season — but the Paladins already have wins against Chattanooga and Mercer and are favored by KenPom in all of their remaining games.
• Western Kentucky (8-3): The Hilltoppers, led by 6-11 junior Charles Bassey, one of the nation’s best rebounders and shot-blockers, have wins over Memphis and Alabama and a close loss to West Virginia. But like the rest of these hopefuls, they’ll likely need to win their conference.
There’s one thing, however, any would-be Cinderella won’t have to worry about in a 2021 NCAA Tournament — a lot of travel. The NCAA confirmed on Monday what had been expected for weeks: All 67 tournament games this season will be played in Indiana.
Games will be played at the Indianapolis homes of Butler, IUPUI and the NBA’s Pacers, as well as Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and IU’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington. The Final Four will be at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement describing what will be the largest bubble-type effort in sports undertaken during the pandemic.
This means the Ramblers would be playing a mere 160-some miles from home and not traveling in between rounds.
Trips to originally scheduled venues like Dallas (803 miles from Chicago), Providence, R.I., (835) and San Jose (1,838) would have been much tougher. And Loyola is in the middle of the country. For Furman, a roundtrip from Greenville, S.C., to San Jose would have meant almost 4,400 miles.
The lack of travel opening rounds and the regionals will help all teams. But the fact that Baylor will not be playing in Dallas, Duke won’t be assigned an easy trip to Raleigh, N.C., and Kansas won’t take the court in friendly Wichita will add more intrigue to a unique season.
Central Connecticut State at Bryant, Total 163: Bryant is one of the fastest teams in the country with an average possession length on offense of 14.2 seconds. The Bulldogs also shoot the ball well from all three spots and are facing one of the nation’s worst defenses.
The Blue Devils are decent shooters, but they don’t excel on the offensive glass. While they’re not Bryant-quick, they are No. 79 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted-tempo ratings.
The Bulldogs haven’t played since a 93-88 win over UMass on Dec. 21. OVER
North Texas -5 at UTSA: The Mean Green has split its first eight games, but the four losses are all to teams currently in the top 75 at KenPom.com. UTSA is No. 200.
The Roadrunners are horrible at guarding the 3-point line, which could be disastrous against North Texas, which is No. 19 in the country from long range. In fact, UTSA is poor overall on defense (although they’re decent on the glass).
Last weekend, the Roadrunners lost by 19 and 15 to Rice, which does not shoot the ball as well as the Mean Green. NORTH TEXAS
Winthrop -10 at High Point: After their Tuesday win over Charleston Southern, the Eagles were one of five teams who were undefeated through nine games.
On offense, Winthrop has the shortest possession length in Division I — something that will be tough for a Panthers defense that ranks 234th.
The Eagles shoot just 63.3% from the free-throw line, but they’re very good in almost every other offensive category. If they can make their 3-pointers, this could be a blowout. Winthrop, 7-2 ATS, made just 14 of 52 long-range shots in their two ATS losses. On the season, the Eagles are No. 39 in 3-point shooting. High Point is 221st guarding the arc. WINTHROP
Last week: 2-1