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OPINION: Ramble on

By Dominic Pino, Columnist

Every once in a while, an event transpires that shakes us.  We become confident in our ability to forecast events because, after all, the world is the same each day, and we know how it works.  Then along comes Loyola University of Chicago to remind us that the world still has spice, vigor, and unpredictability.

The 11-seed Loyola Ramblers of the Missouri Valley Conference advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament.  To get to the semifinals in San Antonio, they beat 6 seed Miami, 3-seed Tennessee, 7-seed Nevada, and 9-seed Kansas State. Each of those schools is from a major conference (ACC, SEC, Mountain West, and Big 12, respectively), and has no business losing to a private, Jesuit university from Chicago’s north side.

The only people whose brackets were not busted by these upsets are the players’ moms.  By any of the following reasonable criteria, it just doesn’t make any sense:

  1. Conference.  You can tell that the Missouri Valley Conference isn’t major because if I just wrote MVC, you would likely not know what I was referring to.  ACC and SEC do not present a similar conundrum.
  2. Non-conference schedule.  Outside the Valley, they had only one quality win (over no. 5 Florida).  Plus they had two really bad losses: an 87-53 thrashing against Boise State and a 73-56 loss to the pitiful UW-Milwaukee.
  3. Status of the school.  The school is not well known, so much so that the name is always written as Loyola-Chicago so as not to be confused with Loyola-Maryland, a different Jesuit school in Baltimore.
  4. Coaching.  Head coach Porter Moser has never coached in the tournament before and was fired from his last head coaching job at Illinois State after only four years.
  5. Recent success.  N/A.
  6. Star players.  N/A.

And there is a seventh criterion that never would have picked Loyola: big data.  The Basketball Power Index (BPI) is a statistical index created by ESPN to be the definitive way to compare college basketball teams.  How definitive? According to ESPN’s website, it takes into account: wins and losses, difficulty of schedule, quality of opponent, pace of play, site, travel distance, and — I promise this is real — altitude.  Oh, and then they simulate the entire season 10,000 times. And update the rankings daily.

The Loyola Ramblers finished the regular season ranked 43rd in BPI.  Their strength of schedule? 125th. Kansas State was 46th, but with the 31st strongest schedule.  Miami was 34th in BPI. Nevada was 31st. Tennessee was 14th. Numbers don’t lie.

Except when they do.  The Ramblers made the Final Four, BPI be damned.  So how did they do it?

Coach Moser had an explanation.  When asked by the CBS sideline reporter how they advanced to the Final Four, the reason he gave was roughly what you would expect from a Jesuit school: belief.

Belief isn’t in the ingredients for BPI.  It isn’t in the box score. It doesn’t take up space in the paint.  It resides solely in the space that matters most: the space between the ears.

In an age where things seem more and more inevitable, where better computers make better projections and bigger data make bigger predictions, there’s this pesky thing called belief that spoils the algorithms and skews the results.  The Ramblers are here to remind us that we don’t know everything just yet.

Loyola-Chicago has shaken the college basketball world, and they should shake the confidence of those who would say they definitively know the future.  I hope the Ramblers enjoyed San Antonio and will close with the surprisingly fitting words of Led Zeppelin: “Ramble on / And now’s the time, the time is now.”  What better time than now, the present, to remind us that we can’t predict the future?