ATLANTA -- It was easy to get swept up in the emotion of Loyola-Chicago's win over Kansas State on Saturday night to advance to the Final Four. There was the heartwarming national phenomenon Sister Jean in her wheelchair on the baseline. There was Porter Moser, as proud as any coach on the planet, jumping over press row to hug his family in the stands. There were even a few members of the 1963 national championship team -- the last from the small Jesuit college on the shore of Lake Michigan to make it this far in the tournament -- standing at midcourt in a daze of joy and disbelief.
They did it. Cinderella, an 11-seed afterthought from the little-known Missouri Valley Conference, was really moving on.
In the locker room, after the confetti fell and Moser accepted the South Region trophy -- "Look at this!" he shouted. "Are you kidding me?!" -- the celebration continued. Cameron Krutwig, the stocky but skilled big man, sat in the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. Loyola's first three wins in the tournament came by a combined four points, but beating K-State 78-62 was far less stressful. Krutwig joked with reporters, "My heart wasn't hurting as much."
To his right, on a whiteboard written in enormous red block letters, were those fateful words: "Final Four!" Around the room, players repeated the team motto: "No finish lines."
But looking past the exclamation points, past the catch phrases, past the hugs and high-fives and tears of joy, there was a team that earned its trip to the Final Four. There was K-State coach Bruce Weber, sitting at a podium inside the bowels of Philips Arena afterward, making sense of a good old-fashioned beatdown.
Weber spoke about how physical Loyola was, how the Ramblers "iced" the Wildcats' ball screens, how they switched on everything.
"We never could get in any rhythm," he explained. "And I feared it. Our staff feared it. We talked a lot yesterday about it. They were better defensively than I even thought, to be honest."
Better. Not lucky.
Something not to be taken lightly. A team to be feared.
Say what you want about Loyola. Call it a team of destiny, how the glass slipper fits, why it's only a matter of time before they get their own "30 for 30." Point out how it's tied for the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four, while you're at it.
But if we're going to talk about Loyola and the magical run the Ramblers are on, let's try to demystify them a bit. Let's try to look past the divine presence of Sister Jean for a moment and see a team that's winning by playing better basketball, not by sleight of hand.
Just take a peek inside its locker room in Atlanta to find out how.
Go back to Thursday, before Loyola advanced to the Elite Eight, before it was upgraded to a more spacious locker room. Want to know how its defense forced Nevada into so many low-percentage shots, how it held the Martin twins to 5-of-13 from beyond the arc? The Ramblers were prepared to do so.
There, in their cramped confines not much bigger than a walk-in closet, were oversized sheets of paper taped to every inch of available wall space. Hanging from the ceiling were an array of X's and O's drawn up by the coaching staff. From "Weave Down" to "Dribble Panther," every single one of Nevada's plays were drawn out. It was like "A Beautiful Mind" for mid-majors.
The same was true on Saturday, only amplified. Even with the short turnaround, Moser and his staff created a full-scale scouting report on K-State. Their setup was a little less chaotic thanks to the larger space, but it was no less overwhelming to see all the information in one place. On one wall was a whole array of plays under the heading of ball-screen actions: 1 Down, 20 Funnel, 1 Dribble Weave Chop, Hawk R&R, Hawk Drop, Horns Flare. There was another wall with motion actions: Hawk 5 Scissors, Shuffle Away, Elbow Milwaukee, Stagger Green Bay -- each with one or two additional looks.
Even K-State's personnel was broken down for all to see. Take, for instance, freshman forward Cartier Diarra. An oversized white sheet of paper contained Diarra's photo with his height, weight and career stats broken down by season. There also was a scouting report: "Very quick Lefty PG; shifty w/ the ball ... Likes to rip & refuse right in the funnel ... He will miss at the rim if you stay vertical ... Slow shot fake -- Stay down." Armed with that information, Loyola held Diarra to two made field goals in 25 minutes.
Mike McGuirl, whom coaches sized up as a "spot-up shooter" who takes 50 percent of his shots from 3, was held to just five points -- none of which came from his five 3-point attempts.
Some teams might have drowned in so much information, but Loyola put it to good use.
Moser said you can "rewind the clock to Utah with Rick Majerus" to find where his detailed reports come from. Before every game, at home or on the road, he and his staff "put everything up" for players to see.
"I don't know if it's through osmosis or anything," Moser said, calling the reports just another way of picking up a competitive advantage. "... But this group embraces preparation."
Said Krutwig: "It's just something that breeds confidence in us. Preparation breeds confidence, for sure, knowing that if we see some setup they run, we know this is what they're looking to do."
Krutwig is unique in that he's a freshman who can absorb all the details. But if you look at Loyola's roster as a whole, you'll find that this is a veteran-laden team whose top four players in terms of minutes per game are all either juniors or seniors.
That experience has served Loyola well. Donte Ingram, a senior, hit the game-winning shot to begin the tournament against Miami. Clayton Custer, a fourth-year junior, then hit the game winner against Tennessee. Against Nevada, it was junior Marques Townes who iced the game with a clutch 3-pointer. And finally, on Saturday it was senior Ben Richardson who played the role of hero, scoring a career-high 23 against K-State.
Everyone can pass. Everyone can dribble. Everyone, it seems, it capable of making plays.
If you're Michigan or anyone else in the Final Four, good luck handling that.
"That's what's so special about our team," Richardson said. "We've got so many unselfish guys, and we have so many weapons. And like we've been saying, it can be anybody's night."
With so much skill, so much experience and so much preparation, Loyola feels like more than a run-of-the-mill Cinderella story.
This isn't a team that got hot yesterday. It's a team riding the longest winning streak in Division I hoops (14 games) for a reason.
Players are relishing the moment, of course. But they're not resigned to just sit back and see where it goes next, either.
"I've been asked every step of the way about how the guys are going to handle the hype and the hoopla," Moser said. "And the guys have almost risen to it. They've embraced it. It hasn't affected their being locked in."