Potential Cinderella Loyola keeps noise out of locker room ahead of Miami game

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Loyola celebrated at Gentile Arena Sunday when the basketball team found out it was facing Miami in the first round of March Madness. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

DALLAS — Experts can talk, but don’t expect Loyola coach Porter Moser and his crew to listen.

Eleventh-seeded Loyola has been deemed a potential Cinderella team in the NCAA Tournament. Even 98-year-old Loyola basketball chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, has a special bracket in her back pocket called the “Cinderella dream,” in which Loyola wins it all.

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But the Ramblers are trying to tune out the noise and not get caught up in the projections.

Guard Marques Townes said the team is keeping a “laser-like focus” on the task at hand, which is beating sixth-seeded Miami on Thursday.

“We’re just focused on our team and what we have to do to win this game,” Townes said. “We have this thing that we say: Just have our blinders on, just block everything out and just focus on us, focus on togetherness, just look forward to this next game and what we have to do to win this game and set our goals for this next game.”

Moser has emphasized to his team that the only predictions that matter are the ones made in the locker room.

“[Heading into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament,] we didn’t talk about the at-large bid,” Moser said. “The same thing with this distraction. Their focus hasn’t changed. This week of practice for these film sessions has been good, and the blinders have got to be strictly on Miami, what we have to do for ourselves and what we have to do with Miami.”

Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga knows firsthand that an 11th-seeded team can pull the upset. In 2006, Larranaga coached 11th-seeded George Mason to an upset of sixth-seeded Michigan State. The Patriots reached the Final Four, where they lost to Florida. So Larranaga doesn’t underestimate Loyola.

“My experience is seeding doesn’t matter that much, it’s how well you play,” he said. “The challenge for our Miami team is we need to play at a very, very high level to compete with them. We’ve got to be sure that we understand the caliber of our opponent, [which] has earned an awful lot of respect. There’s only one way for us really to earn that same kind of respect, and that’s to play great [Thursday].”

Larranaga noted that the Ramblers are hotter than they’ve ever been. Loyola has won 18 of its last 19 games. With multiple players contributing to the team’s success, it’s hard for Miami to key on one player or design a defensive strategy.

Regardless of what others are saying, both teams said they have a mutual respect for one another.

“Sometimes people think you can’t respect [your opponents],” Moser said. “Respect is not a weakness. These guys have an unbelievable amount of respect for Miami. And all our focus is on what we have to do to try to contain their athleticism because they’re extremely athletic.”

Loyola earning its first NCAA Tournament berth in more than three decades is a tale in itself, but guard Donte Ingram said the Ramblers aren’t done writing their story.

“We’re far from content,” he said. “We’re not happy to just be here. Just like any other team, we want to compete, and we want to win games. I think that this team is very capable of that. And just going forward, that’s all we’re focusing on. We’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh, we are here now, and that’s the end of the road for us.’ We want to do what we can do to go in here and get wins.”

Follow me on Twitter @madkenney.

Email: mkenney@suntimes.com

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