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Loyola-DePaul game puts Chicago college hoops in spotlight

After another tournament run, the Ramblers are 6-2. The Blue Demons are 6-0 after practically starting from scratch. Broadcasters from both sides discuss the Red Line Rivalry’s renewal.

DePaul, celebrating a victory against Rutgers last month, is looking to stay perfect against Loyola, the current king of Chicago college basketball.
Mark Black/AP

To most Chicago sports enthusiasts, this is a pro-sports town. They’re aware of college sports, but those games don’t resonate with them. It takes a special happening for Chicago sports fans to latch onto a college game, and the area schools haven’t provided enough for decades to change the mindset.

Maybe that’s why the mindset exists.

“When college teams win in Chicago, people get into it,” said Jordan Bernfield, the regular TV voice for Loyola men’s basketball since 2011. “You can’t convince me that Loyola going to the Final Four or Northwestern going to the tournament weren’t great stories that somehow were overshadowed by the pro sports.

“The difference is that because college sports haven’t been consistently at the top for a while, it’s easier for the fans and the media to focus away from the college teams. But when they win, people love it.”

That will be put to the test Saturday, when Loyola visits DePaul at Wintrust Arena (3 p.m., FS1, 670-AM, loyolaramblers.com). The Ramblers are 6-2 and return four starters from a team that reached the

Sweet 16. The Blue Demons are 6-0 and starting almost from scratch.

DePaul used to carry the mantle for Chicago college basketball, but it hasn’t sniffed success since joining the Big East in 2005. Since 2017, Loyola has run the town, if not the state. Illini fans braced for the worst last season when Loyola appeared as a potential second-round opponent during the NCAA Tournament selection show. Their fears were realized a week later.

The Ramblers have picked up where they left off under new coach Drew Valentine, who was an assistant under now-Oklahoma coach Porter Moser. New Blue Demons coach Tony Stubblefield is trying to resurrect a program that has reveled in its past for far too long.

“What better way for him to start than to knock off the big dog in the city,” Bernfield said. “Loyola has been carrying the torch for the city of Chicago the last five years. If they could beat Loyola, that would be huge.

“I’ve done a bunch of these [intracity] games in the past, and they do matter to people. The better the teams get, the more attention the games will get.”

Zach Zaidman has called DePaul men’s basketball on The Score since 2005, and he has had few meaningful games. There was the Demons’ upset of No. 5 Kansas in 2006 and the overtime victory in 2019 against Texas Tech, which had reached the national title game the year before.

There might be only a handful of others, so what he’s looking forward to most on Saturday shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“The atmosphere,” Zaidman said. -“Everything that’s wrong with college sports generates the headlines. But at its core, why do we follow college sports? -Because of the rivalries. And it is so cool that you actually have a rivalry that matters. It’s the Red Line rivalry renewed.”

“I would imagine that there’s going to be enough maroon-and-gold scarfs at that game,” Bernfield said.

The schools haven’t met since Dec. 29, 2012, when Loyola won 69-61 at Allstate Arena, snapping an 11-game skid in the series (DePaul leads 30-9). The Ramblers improved to 9-3, and the Demons fell to 9-4, but the Ramblers would win only six more games that season and the Demons just two.

The current teams figure to have more staying power, particularly Loyola, which still has shutdown defender Lucas Williamson and is overcoming the loss of center Cameron Krutwig with a committee approach. Sophomore center Jacob Hutson scored 26 points last Friday against Arizona State, and senior forwards Chris Knight and Ryan Schwieger have made big contributions off the bench. Valentine also is putting his own stamp on the team.

“They’re a little more free offensively,” Bernfield said. “Porter is like a surgical coach when it comes to offense and trying to get the best shot possible within the shot clock. Drew is a little more willing to let guys feel free to take a shot if they get a look early in the clock.

“But what makes Loyola so tough to play against is that they can dictate what you do because they’re so tenacious defensively and so efficient on offense. If you want to change their tempo, it’s very hard to do.”

DePaul will give it a shot. Through Wednesday, the Demons ranked fifth in the nation in points per game (88.5) and were tied for 14th in rebounds per game (43), led by senior Javon Freeman-Liberty, who’s averaging nearly a double-double (23.5, 9.2). Granted, they’ve played a soft schedule, but unlike previous versions, they don’t fold. A few of their victories easily could have gone the other way.

“For a team that won five games all of last season, the fact that they’ve got six victories, psychologically, that’s a big deal,” Zaidman said. “They play hard all the time. They never allow bad things to keep them down. And they share the basketball. It’s an entertaining style of play.”

By the sound of it, this could be the kind of game that boosts the profile of college hoops in Chicago.

“It’s gonna be interesting because city teams don’t want to lose to other city teams,” Bernfield said.

Remote patrol

  • Play-by-play voice Bob Brainerd and analyst Jess Settles will call the Loyola-DePaul game on FS1. Zach Zaidman and Dave Corzine will have it on The Score, and Jeff Hagedorn and Chris Sparks will call it at loyolaramblers.com.
  • It’s another NFL Sunday at home for Adam Amin, who will call Cardinals-Bears on Fox with Mark Schlereth and sideline reporter Shannon Spake. Mike Monaco will fill in for Amin alongside Stacey King on the Bulls-Nets broadcast Saturday on NBC Sports Chicago.
  • Regular Bulls fill-in Jason Benetti will be in Detroit for the MAC football championship between Northern Illinois and Kent State at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN. He’ll be joined by analyst Andre Ware and reporter Paul Carcaterra.