Loyola vs. college basketball’s big boys is once again a tropic of conversation

In the opening game of a tournament in the Bahamas, the Ramblers take on Michigan State. Who says they can’t bring down another giant?

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Loyola’s players celebrate after beating Illinois in the NCAA Tournament.

AP Photos

Around this time of year in 2017, a team of nobodies took the court at Florida.

The Gators were ranked fifth in the country. Through seven games that season, they were averaging a nation-leading 94.7 points. Some in the crowd likely wondered which Loyola had wandered into Gainesville for a drubbing. The one from Baltimore? The one from Los Angeles? The one from New Orleans?

Nope, nope and nope again. It was the one from Chicago, which hadn’t beaten a top-five opponent or appeared in the NCAA Tournament since the 1984-85 season. Guess what? You probably already did. Ramblers 65, Gators 59.

A team of somebodies was born.

“This is a huge win for our program,” then-coach Porter Moser said, “and we hope this makes the fire burn brighter in our guys moving forward.”

We all know it did. Those Ramblers went all the damn way to the Final Four.

And since? A whole bunch of winning, most notably last season’s squad — Moser’s last — knocking off top-seeded Illinois to reach the Sweet 16.

Wednesday in the opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, Loyola, now coached by Drew Valentine, takes on Michigan State. Thursday’s opponent will be Auburn or Connecticut, each in the Top 25. After that? Depending how things go, it could be defending national champion Baylor.

“We just feel like we belong here,” said forward Aher Uguak, a graduate student in his final season. “But we feel like we’re kind of under the radar again this year. It happens to us every year.”

One would think the Ramblers would have everyone’s respect by now.

“It’s funny,” said Valentine, who orchestrated Loyola’s defenses for four seasons before Moser left for Oklahoma. “I mean, it’s two-fold. When we recruit against [bigger] schools, we get talked about like we’re not at their level or don’t compete at that level. But if we ask somebody to come play in Gentile Arena, you guys see what the schedule looks like.”

In other words, it just doesn’t happen.

“I think they — deep down — really respect us,” he said. “[But] we feel, you know, respected and disrespected at the same time.”

There are warm feelings between Valentine and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Carlton Valentine — father of Drew and former Bulls guard Denzel — played for the Spartans when Izzo was an assistant. Denzel was national player of the year in East Lansing. Drew worked for Izzo as a graduate assistant.

Still, this will be a grudge match. It always is from the Ramblers’ point of view when they go nose to nose (OK, so the Spartans are a lot taller) with a powerhouse foe.

“We approach every single game like it’s the Super Bowl,” said guard Lucas Williamson, who was just a freshman when that upset win at Florida kind of set this whole thing in motion.

The Ramblers learned four years ago they compete at a high level and more than hold their own.

“It just helps you in the back of your mind,” Williamson said.

It sure can’t hurt.

JUST SAYIN’

• My latest AP Top 25 ballot: 1. Gonzaga, 2. Kansas, 3. UCLA, 4. Purdue, 5. Duke, 6. Baylor, 7. Houston, 8. Memphis, 9. Kentucky, 10. Illinois, 11. Alabama, 12. Villanova, 13. Connecticut, 14. Virginia Tech, 15. St. Bonaventure, 16. Arkansas, 17. Arizona, 18. Tennessee, 19. Florida, 20. USC, 21. Auburn, 22. Texas, 23. BYU, 24. Michigan State, 25. Xavier.

• Yes, ballots were due before Illinois embarrassed itself Monday in a 71-51 capitulation against unranked Cincinnati in Kansas City, Missouri.

“It’s called toughness,” said coach Brad Underwood, “and we don’t have much of it right now. We’ve got to get that.”

Translation: Can we borrow Ayo Dosunmu for a couple of weeks?

CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State

Skalski put his helmet right in Fields’ ribs.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

• Speaking of toughness, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ rib injury is an invitation to rewind to Jan. 1 in New Orleans. Leading underdog Ohio State against Trevor Lawrence and mighty Clemson in a national semifinal, Fields took an almost shockingly brutal helmet shot to the ribs from linebacker James Skalski in the second quarter. Skalski was ejected for targeting. Fields — his rib cage screaming at him — not only fought to the finish line of a 49-28 upset but threw four more touchdown passes to finish with six in the game.

I’ll stick with this: Fields isn’t on the list of the Bears’ problems. He needs more time to develop, a different coaching staff to develop him and a better line to protect him.

I won’t be the last sucker in his corner, but I’m still there.

• There is absolutely no truth to the rumor the Bears already have burned two of their first-half timeouts for Thursday’s game in Detroit.

That said, there ought to be a raise in it for anybody who can “accidentally” disconnect Matt Nagy’s headset again.

• Lions 19, Bears 17.

Choke that down with your green bean casserole.

And print it.

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