We humans are wired to want to believe in something, anything. We hunger and thirst for it, whatever “it’’ is, which explains how we’ve gone from zero to 60 mph with Loyola in the blink of an eye.
Most of us feel only a tinge of embarrassment for having arrived so late to the game with the Ramblers, who, against all reason, are headed to the Final Four.
I don’t have time to feel bad about not paying attention to Loyola basketball for most of the season. I’m too busy enjoying the story, watching big man Cameron Krutwig run as fast as his burly frame will allow him and observing Sister Jean deal with stardom. I’m too busy believing.
What a story this is. The NCAA Tournament lends itself to tales like this all the time. But until now, the assumption had been that those tales happen to somebody else, to some far-off school of whose existence you only have a vague notion.
After Loyola won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to force its way into the real tournament, some of us wrote that the Ramblers had the kind of team that could do damage in the Big Dance. They possessed talented, experienced players who were leaders, and they played unselfishly together. Why not Loyola, we asked.
At that point, the question was rhetorical.
Now it’s literal.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers face third-seeded Michigan in a national semifinal game Saturday in San Antonio, and it would be foolish for anyone to think of them as underdogs. They’ve done too much to this point, and shown so much of what they are, that it’s almost impossible to see them being overwhelmed or outplayed by the Wolverines — or, ahem, anyone beyond that.
When you hear a team described as tough on defense and selfless on offense, it can be code for “overachievers.’’ Overachievers is code for “slow guys who would shoot bucket shots at the free-throw line if they were allowed.’’ But these guys are talented. It takes athletic ability to make cuts to draw defenders. It takes talent to make the right pass. You have to be physically gifted to play the lockdown defense that the Ramblers sic on opponents. Effort is nice. Effort plus athleticism is a load.
The Ramblers are simply good, with no qualifiers. Their seeding is a reflection of the influence of the power conferences. It’s either that or NCAA selection committee members were drinking heavily when they were drawing up the brackets.
This is a likable team, so likable that Chicago and the nation have fallen in love with it. It’s clear that the players enjoy and respect each other. It’s clear that they like Sister Jean, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain. Everything about the Ramblers seems genuine. Maybe that’s what we’ve plugged into.
Sister Jean reminds me of some of the down-to-earth nuns I know and have known. If you went to Catholic schools, you understand. If you didn’t, look at the bright eyes and smile of the nun cheering on Loyola, and you will. I’ll give CBS credit. I was certain it would show her so many times during Loyola’s games that America would rebel. Instead, the network has exhibited uncharacteristic restraint, enough that the team is still the story and she a wonderful part of it.
How big is the story of the Little Team That Could? This isn’t the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, not even close. Most of you don’t have the lifetime investment with the Ramblers that you had with the Cubs. But this is a story that’s never going away in Chicago. It’s the story of a group of skilled players who won a bunch of games, built up enormous reserves of belief and set about ruining brackets everywhere.
And if they win the whole thing? If they change improbable to probable and unbelievable to believable? Well, then we can put this story high on the list of Chicago sports stories. As good a feel-good story as we’ve had around here.
But that’s for later. Now there’s the business at hand. Michigan has more highly recruited players than the Ramblers do, but that’s been the story of the tournament for Loyola. The Wolverines were eighth in the country in total defense in the regular season, and Loyola was fifth. It could be a beautiful slog of a game. What fun.
The Ramblers have given us something to believe in, when we weren’t expecting it. They dropped right in our laps, out of nowhere. Turns out they’ve been here the whole time.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.