Same old, same old for Loyola? No, these Ramblers are different. And next up: Illinois

Not to take anything away from the 2018 Ramblers, but they never ran into a team in the same stratosphere as Illinois until they got to the Final Four and lost to eventual runner-up Michigan.

SHARE Same old, same old for Loyola? No, these Ramblers are different. And next up: Illinois
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Lucas Williamson hangs and finishes for two against Georgia Tech.

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It’s time to put 2018 to bed.

Not you, Loyola. The rest of us.

If you’re like me, you’ve regarded this season’s Ramblers — 71-60 winners Friday against Georgia Tech in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament — as extensions of the squad that took America for a hell of a ride three years ago, all the way to the Final Four.

Porter Moser, still outcoaching his peers.

Sister Jean, still charming all in her midst.

Cameron Krutwig, still manning the middle, better than ever and the star of the team.

And the Ramblers, still getting it done in March. First, another Missouri Valley championship. Now, another “W” in the Big Dance. Line ’em up, knock ’em down. Same as it ever was, right?

But no. Enough of that. These Ramblers are different. For one thing, they don’t often just squeak by opponents. More typically, they tie them into knots and punt them into the nearest trash heap. Witness a win going away — despite falling behind by double digits early — against the postseason champs of the mighty ACC.

More important, that wasn’t Clayton Custer, Ben Richardson, Marques Townes, Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson out there against the Yellow Jackets, making clutch play after clutch play and sending fans in maroon-and-gold scarves into a frenzy.

It was senior Lucas Williamson, just a role player off the bench in 2018 but now as vital to the Ramblers’ success as anyone. It was fellow guards Braden Norris and Keith Clemons, who helped Williamson stand up to an imposing Georgia Tech perimeter trio.

These Ramblers are different because most of their names and faces have changed, and they’ve earned our notice in their own right.

Williamson scored a season-high 21 points, buried timely shots and eventually took over the game with the kind of defense that made him the MVC’s defensive player of the year.

“I just want to win,” he said in an on-court interview when it was over. “I just want to win so badly. I know what it feels like from freshman year. It feels so good. I just want to feel it again.”

Norris and Clemons joined him to combine for 11 three-pointers, including the daggers that put the Yellow Jackets away. And their reward is a challenge that’s so big, tall, wide and imposing, it makes you shake your head just thinking about it.

Eighth-seeded Loyola (25-4) gets top-seeded Illinois (24-6) on Sunday. Maybe it’s the matchup you wanted. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s happening.

Do the Ramblers really have a chance — any chance at all — against the very best of the Big Ten and perhaps the entire tournament field?

Not to take anything away from the 2018 Ramblers, but they never ran into a team in the same stratosphere as Illinois until they got to the Final Four and lost to eventual runner-up Michigan.

“It’s going to take everything we’ve got,” Williamson said. “They’re one of the best teams in the country. I mean, that’s no secret. We’re just going to have to come with it, be us and, yeah, just be us.”

We haven’t even talked about the Illini here. Haven’t gushed about the machinelike dismantling of 16th-seeded Drexel by Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and company. OK, so we’ll focus on them tomorrow. And likely for at least a week after that. They should handle Loyola and whoever comes next. We should have all the time we need.

Illini coach Brad Underwood has been talking since January about “winning six” — the number it takes to cut down the nets at the end. “You can’t get to two without one,” he says, and so on.

“If you’re not dialed in and you’re not on point with your execution and your game plan, you go home,” he said.

That’s true, of course. Even the best teams are one false move from disaster. Just ask Ohio State, a first-round loser — but how? — to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts.

Illinois could learn that the hard way against Loyola. The Ramblers will climb into the ring with Illinois, take their best shots and see if they can’t somehow survive.

Win or lose, it won’t be 2018 all over again. It’s time to put that story to bed. These Ramblers are different. Who knows? Maybe even better.

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