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Why Loyola Is The Next Leicester, And Other Soccer Comparisons To Help With Your March Madness Bracket

For a while now, I have touted that college basketball and European soccer, despite an ocean between them, are very much two parallel sports.

The fervor of college basketball student sections, something not found at most professional sports games in the United States, is the closest facsimile to thousands of mad ultras at a European football match, making home advantage so important in each sport.

Furthermore, the set-up of the two sports is very similar. You have Power-5 conferences in basketball (Big 10, Big 12, Big East, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern) and five big leagues (EPL, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1) in Europe, as well as a few dozen notable smaller leagues.

Just as the tiny College of Holy Cross has a chance to make the NCAA tournament, IFK Mariehamn of the Finnish Veikkausliiga also has a chance to make the Champions League.

With so many teams in each sport, it is impossible even for the most infatuated fan to be in tune with every one of them (believe me, I've tried), making for frequent upsets and a constant stream of unknown players breaking through.

With the striking number of similarities between the two sports, it is no surprise that I consider them to be my two favorite sports to watch.

To further this analogy, I created a little March Madness guide but in soccer terms. Nothing too overwhelming, just enough to get your feet wet and familiarize yourself with the teams and players participating in this year's men's NCAA tournament.

So if you're a soccer fan looking to learn about college basketball (or maybe some stray basketball fans looking to learn to play with their feet), it's time to dig in and enjoy the magic of March.

College Basketball → European Soccer Comparisons


Alabama is Leeds United

Elite coach? Check. Hated fanbase? Check. Frantic pace of play? Check. Are we sure this isn't just the same team? Both Alabama and Leeds are back in the bigtime after struggling the last 15-20 years. 

Alabama is known for its football, Leeds fans are known for being awful on the internet, but let's talk about what really sets these teams apart: the coaches. Nate Oats has Alabama ranked fifth in the country in just his second season on the job. Much of the praise for Bama has been for its offense, which plays at an electric pace, excels on the fast break and has some of the best shot selection in the country, but this team is based on defense — which is the second best in the nation.

Under Bielsa, Leeds plays in a frantic, aggressive style not too dissimilar to Oats' Alabama team. This has cost them at the back sometimes (see six goals allowed to Manchester United), but it has also allowed Leeds to compete with some of the Premier League's top sides. Both teams will go down swinging.

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Wisconsin is Juventus circa 2013-2016

When the topic of age is discussed in college basketball, the focus is usually on youth. Star freshmen, incoming recruits, players leaving school early to go pro. But few things are undervalued in the collegiate game as much as veteran experience.

Wisconsin has the oldest starting lineup in college basketball, with an average age approaching 23, and the rotation includes two seniors and four redshirt seniors (fifth-year players). All of these players are eligible to return next season due to the NCAA giving athletes an extra year of eligibility due to COVID. At one point, the Badgers even had an older starting lineup than the NBA's Chicago Bulls.

Wisconsin is analogous in the soccer world to the "Old Lady" of Italian football, Juventus. Before the recent purchases of young players like Matthijs de Ligt and Weston McKennie, Juve was bastioned by a veteran core of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and a backline made of ageless Italian national team defenders (how is Bonucci still only 33?). Both teams also happen to play at an extremely slow pace, using their patience and experience to wear down the opponent. Still, neither squad has been able to win the big one. 

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Loyola Chicago is Leicester City

Two years after Leicester City won the Premier League against historically long odds, Loyola Chicago of the Missouri Valley Conference miraculously made the Final Four as an 11 seed. And like the Foxes of the Premier League, the Ramblers have proven that they are not just a single-season fluke. Loyola is 24-2 this season and might be even better than its Final Four team, as Porter Moser's team is ranked ninth in the nation by KenPom, college basketball's premier statistical guru.

Similar to the Leicester title-winning side of 15-16, Loyola prides itself on D. The Ramblers are the top defensive team in the country (per KenPom) and they held 19 of 21 conference opponents to 60 points or less. Loyola also has a lovable talisman in forward Cameron Krutwig, the Ramblers' riposte to Jaime Vardy. The last remaining player from the Final Four team, the  6-9, 255-pound Krutwig is deceptively quick and is one of the best passing big men in the game. He averages 15 points, 6.7 rebounds and three assists per game and controls the floor like few players can.

The best player in college basketball

Loyola legend Cameron Krutwig, possibly the best mustache in Missouri Valley history. Photo via Loyola Ramblers Athletics

Winthrop and Colgate are Rangers

One of the most difficult tasks come tournament time is examining the resumes of mid-major teams with high win totals. These teams dominate their leagues but compete in very weak conferences. Winthrop finished 22-1 this season but only played two teams that finished in the top 100 in the NCAA's NET Rankings (wins over UNC Greensboro and Furman) en route to winning the Big South title.

Colgate is another team that is tough to judge, as the Raiders finished 11-1 in league play but only played three different opponents due to strict scheduling put in place by the Patriot League. Like Winthrop, Colgate's only defeat came by just two points, but despite those lone blips, both teams are very good offensively: Colgate is an elite three-point-shooting team while Winthrop is great at offensive rebounding.

In Scotland, Rangers has only lost one match across all competitions this season, a 3-2 defeat to St. Mirren in the Scottish League Cup quarterfinals. Rangers has already secured the Scottish Premiership title, possessing an undefeated record and holding a 20-point lead over second-place Celtic. Steven Gerrard's side has faced a bit more of a challenge in the Europa League, drawing twice to Benfica, but has still yet to defeat a quality opponent. Does either team have what it takes to advance against the big boys?

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Cade Cunningham (Guard, Oklahoma State) is Erling Haaland (Striker, Borussia Dortmund)

The comparisons come easy when you have two unstoppable scorers who are both touted as the future of their sport. Freshman phenom Cade Cunningham was projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft even before he played his first collegiate game and has not disappointed. The Cowboys guard is averaging 20.2 points per game this season while also posting 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest.

He dropped 40 points in an overtime victory over Oklahoma and 25 in an upset victory over No. 2 Baylor last week, en route to earning OK State a four seed in the NCAA tournament.

In the Bundesliga, Norwegian striker Erling Haaland is a year older than the collegiate superstar and already dominating the professional game. The Dortmund frontman has 31 goals in 30 matches this season across all competitions, including four goals across the two-legged last-16 tie in the Champions League against Sevilla. 

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Neemias Queta (Center, Utah State) is Kalidou Koulibaly (Center Back, Napoli)

Born in Portugal to Guinean parents, Queta grew up playing soccer on the streets of Barreiro. Now excelling on the hardwood, his style of play bears a strong resemblance to the approach of Napoli center back Kalidou Koulibaly, another African expat. Both players are unsung heroes who are difficult to get past defensively and are elite in the air.

The Portuguese center leads all players in the tournament with 3.21 blocks per game and holds the school record for career blocks. He most notably swatted nine shots in a key Mountain West Conference Tournament victory over Colorado State, another Utah State record. Queta also grabs 10.1 rebounds per contest. On the pitch Koulibaly, born in France to Senegalese parents, is one of the best headers of the ball in Europe and has been named to the Serie A team of the season four times — not an easy task.

Queta might be an even more complete player than Koulibaly, as the Utah State center is a force on the offensive end as well. The seven-footer averaged 15.1 points over the season, including 31 points per game on 65 percent shooting during a two-game set against Boise State earlier in the season. The Boise State games also marked the start of a streak of eight straight double-doubles for Queta, in which he reached double digits in both points and rebounds.

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Isaiah Miller (Guard, UNC Greensboro) is Denis Zakaria (Center Midfielder, Borussia Mönchengladbach)

Two players that really do it all for their teams, neither receives the attention they deserve on the big stage. That could soon change. Miller won Southern Conference Player of the Year for the second consecutive time this year, and the Spartans guard wreaks havoc on both ends of the floor. He ranks second among tournament players with 2.6 steals per game and despite standing just 6 feet tall also grabs 6.9 rebounds per game.

Offensively Miller is just as good, putting up 19.3 points per game, and he has scored in double figures in every game but one this year, capped off by a 25-point, 12-rebound, six-assist performance against Mercer in the Southern Conference championship game.

Mönchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria is similarly adept defensively. He is one of the most difficult players in the Bundesliga to dribble past (per WhoScored?) and is also a proficient dribbler, a skill he often uses to carry the ball into the attacking third.

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Corey Kispert (Forward, Gonzaga) is Kevin de Bruyne (Center Midfielder, Manchester City)

It wouldn't be fair to not name a Gonzaga player in this article, simply because the Zags have been so unbeatable this season. The Jesuit school from Spokane, Washington, comes into the tournament with a perfect 26-0 record, including four wins over teams with a four-seed or better in the tournament. The Zags boast by far the best offense in the nation, which makes it difficult to single out only one player, but senior forward Corey Kispert embodies everything that this team is.

He went from averaging 6.7 points per game as a freshman to a national player of the year candidate on the nation's best team. He averages just over 19 points per game while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range. The highlight of his season came against then-No. 16 Virginia, when Kispert hit 9 of 13 threes en route to a career-high 32 points. After a lone loss to BYU last season, Kispert will hope Gonzaga will end the season undefeated this year.

His soccer comparison is pretty simple: none other than the marvelous Kevin de Bruyne. After not making the grade at Chelsea, de Bruyne dominated the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, then became arguably the best midfielder in the world under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Much like Kispert, de Bruyne is also a top-notch scorer from distance, both from open play and from free kicks. Two top players on top teams; a match made in heaven (now if only we got de Bruyne to wear a headband).

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Bonus Coach Comparison

Bob Huggins (West Virginia) is Sam Allardyce (West Brom)

I can't really explain this one, all I know is that they both look like grumpy old guys you'd find down at your local bar (albeit very different bars).

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