INDIANAPOLIS – Fear the nun.
Loyola Chicago is back on the national stage. She’s back on the national stage. While the Ramblers were rolling past Georgia Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament the other day, Sister Jean sat in the southwest corner of Hinkle Fieldhouse and talked of her future plans.
“We might go home after the second round and come back,” she said. Come back was the operative part. Yes, there’d be a reason to return to Indianapolis next weekend because the Ramblers would be in the Sweet 16, never mind they were eyeball-to-eyeball with Illinois, one of the bullies of the Big Ten. Not a doubt in her mind, and remember, she’s the one who delivers the team prayer via cell phone 30 minutes before every tip-off in Indianapolis. Her theme prior to Sunday’s game was to score early and make the Illini nervous.
For the record, Loyola never trailed and led for 38 minutes and 42 seconds. Good luck with that in the Sweet 16, Oregon State or Oklahoma State.
No, Sister Jean might be 101 years old, but her prognostication and prayer skills haven’t lost a step. With a defense that protects the 60-point barrier like a lion guards his dinner, with a coach who is quickly becoming one of the hottest names for any big fish with a job to fill, with a couple of seniors who know all about March magic because they’ve lived it, Loyola is on the move. That 71-58 whipping the Ramblers put on Illinois did not have the slightest whiff of being an accident. When they weren’t shutting down the Illini on one end, they were shredding them on the other.
They hadn’t beaten the Illini in more than 34 years but really, it looked Sunday as if they do it every season. Loyola’s astonishing march to the 2018 Final Four is back in the public conscious.
“It’s amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe, and these guys believed,” coach Porter Moser said. “This wasn’t just the switch that just flipped the last 48 hours. These guys have invested in what we do and they believe in it.”
Since they’re clamoring for attention again, here are seven things to know about Loyola.
1. Loyola was not exactly a mystery guest Sunday. The Ramblers had won 18 of their last 19 games, and the exception was a one-pointer in overtime to Drake. In the latest polls, they were 17th in Associated Press and 16th with coaches, but that didn’t cut much ice with the NCAA selection committee. Loyola was seeded eighth.
“That’s just the hand that we were dealt,” said Cameron Krutwig, one of the faces from 2018 who went for 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists against Illinois. “We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country and I think we showed that these last two games.”
Indeed, Loyola just played the champions of the ACC and Big Ten tournaments and won by 11 and 13 points. Any more questions?
2. They take a very direct path to victory: Make it maddeningly difficult for the other team to score. Loyola came into the Illini game allowing only 55.7 points a game, lowest in the nation. In their 20-game surge, only two teams had broken 60; Drake scored 65 and Georgia Tech 60. Illinois didn’t get there either, and this is the Illini bunch who just scored 90, 82 and 91 in the Big Ten tournament.
They weren’t allowed to force the pace, they weren’t permitted to get to spots where they could comfortably attack. “When they couldn’t get out and run and couldn’t find the gaps in transition, maybe that frustrated them a little bit.” Krutwig said. One of the final dagger plays was when Illinois All-American Ayo Dosunmu was trying to make something happen, and had the ball poked away – by Krutwig. It was Dosunmu’s sixth turnover.
The Ramblers weren’t surprised. They do that all time to opponents. “I guess people kind of forgot or something but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this season,” Krutwig said. “I guess people chalk it up to maybe being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, play the right way and we follow the scheme.”
If their current points against average holds, it’ll be the lowest at Loyola since 1950.
3. The 26-4 record is the best for the Ramblers since 1963. P.S. They won the national championship that season. Know one of the teams they beat in that tournament? Illinois.
4. Loyola is not exactly Kentucky or Kansas when it comes to NCAA tournament appearances, this being only their seventh. But when the Ramblers show up, stay out of their way. In those seven trips, they’ve won a national title, gone to a Final Four, and advanced to two other Sweet 16s.
5. They’ve become something of a sensation in Chicago. Loyola had one of the loudest crowds of the tournament against Georgia Tech, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse had a lot of maroon Sunday, even with limited attendance.
After a season of empty stands and no noise for their efforts, the Ramblers weren’t about to let this chance get away. They stayed and savored the moment, even though officials wanted to scurry them away so workers could start sanitizing the place for the next game. And that was OK with their coach.
“Our fans were there. We haven’t had fans all year, and they didn’t want to leave,” Moser said. “Security was going to have to make them leave, but they were still there, and I wanted them to stay out and enjoy it because that etches in your memory, that moment right there.”
And he certainly knows.
6. Moser is building quite a resume for schools further up the food chain to go chasing after. Start with this: He’s now 11-2 in national postseason tournaments. Loyola has won 99 games the past four seasons. Nobody else in the state of Illinois has won more than 75. And he’s brought sizzle to the fan base in Chicago, which can get particular about where it spends its sports passion.
“I was told this a lot when I took the job 10 years ago. They said ‘it’s a pro town, it’s a pro town,’” Moser said. “I said, 'I’m from there. It’s a sports town, it’s a sports town.’ They’ve embraced us for years now.
“You want to be relevant. You want to have excitement. It means a lot for Loyola, where we were to where we are now, and we’re not done.”
7. Krutwig and Lucas Williamson are the seniors who have won 99 games and seen about everything, including the Final Four. Their wisdom means something, especially this month. “It’s a little more impressive and resonates when their peers say it,” Moser said.
Krutwig is the first Loyola player in 36 years to be first, second or third team All-American. His 19 points, 12 rebounds and five assists carried the battle to Illinois. Williamson had 14 points. “That Final Four run will hold a special place in my heart but this one feels special-er and sweeter in the moment because I’m here, because I’m in the present right now,” Krutwig said.
Things are good when you’re asked to compare deep runs in March. Loyola is on the march again in March and Sister Jean is along for another ride, now in her second century. Doesn’t get much special-er than that.