Loyola is going to the Final Four. There must be something in my eye because, as I read that sentence back, it looks like I wrote, “Loyola is going to the Final Four.’’
A month ago, the Ramblers were somewhere on the edge of college basketball’s consciousness. Heck, a month ago, they were on the outskirts of Chicago’s consciousness, which generally is where college basketball resides in this city.
Now they’re going to San Antonio to play in a national semifinal game against Michigan. It means that everything you think you knew about anything is wrong. If Loyola can be one game from a chance to win an NCAA title, you’d be wise to re-examine your entire life.
The Ramblers beat Kansas State 78-62 Saturday in Atlanta, continuing their ridiculously fun ride. Where it will stop, nobody with a working brain knows.
“It doesn’t even feel real,’’ guard Ben Richardson said afterward.
No, it doesn’t.
After watching Loyola win four games in the tournament, we shouldn’t be surprised anymore. But the Ramblers are an 11th seed, and no matter how capricious March Madness can be, what they’ve done is still stunning.
They’ll beat you any way you want. Where they beat Nevada on Thursday with layups, they beat Kansas State on Saturday with a barrage of three-pointers. Where they won their first three games of the tournament with last-gasp shots, they won Saturday’s game with a relentlessness that built a 23-point lead and then with a steel-reinforced confidence to overcome a Kansas State comeback.
The Ramblers do two things very well. They move the ball, and they play hard defense. Throughout the tournament, they have made opponents look slow. That’s not supposed to happen, but they have made a lot of things happen that weren’t supposed to happen. It’s tiring just watching them run around the floor.
For the longest time, the ninth-seeded Wildcats couldn’t keep up. And it didn’t look like they had anyone who could score, which in basketball is what is called “a problem.” Then they came roaring back, going on a 14-3 run to cut a 61-38 lead to 64-52 with 4:19 left.
A lesser team, a team that might have started to believe it didn’t belong – basically, any team not named “Loyola’’ – might have caved in. Not this team. The Ramblers bounced back.
Marques Townes, the hero of the Nevada game, made two free throws and converted a three-point play to push the lead back up to 17. And they stayed the course and played their game and did all the corny things that coaches tell their teams to do. That’s what mature players do.
The Ramblers don’t have one big star. They have six lesser stars, and the wattage is superior. When big man Cameron Krutwig backed into the poor guy trying to defend him, it looked like he was using his butt to close the refrigerator door during a late-night raid. The Wildcats didn’t know what to do when he set screens.
The Ramblers have point guard Clayton Custer, who has a name like a gunslinger from the Old West and shoots like one, too. They have Richardson, who had a career-high 23 points. Everybody who gets playing time for Loyola can score. The Ramblers shot 57.4 percent from the field and were 9-for-18 on three-point attempts.
“The ball usually finds the hot hand,’’ Richardson said.
No, it’s not the greatest basketball. It’s not the NBA. But in terms of execution, in terms of setting picks, making the right pass and playing shrink-wrap defense, it’s terrific. In terms of excitement, in terms of gnawed fingernails, shared experiences and school pride, it’s all that’s right with the game.
The Ramblers have won 14 straight games and 21 of their last 22. We didn’t see them coming, and we should have. They were exactly the type of team that could do damage in the NCAA Tournament. Five players averaging double figures, two guys who had played high school ball together and a group of people that seemed to err on the side of unselfishness, if there is such a thing as that. That’s what Loyola is, and that’s why it’s going to San Antonio.
It’s the Ramblers’ first trip to the Final Four since 1963, when they won the national championship.
It doesn’t matter whom they play, even third-seeded Michigan. They’re an 11th seed and not anything close to an underdog.
“It’s an unbelievable group,’’ coach Porter Moser said. “It’s amazing when you believe. They’ve believed and believed and believed.’’
In terms of self-belief, they’re a No.1 seed.