Sad, but true: This whole NCAA Tournament thing is going on without Loyola
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SAN ANTONIO — It was a funny thing early Sunday afternoon, meandering along the famed River Walk in search of swaths of maroon and gold, of billowing Harry Potter-style scarves, of signs that Loyola is still here and prominent in its own way.
Funny and kind of sad, actually, because there were practically no such signs to be found, at least not by these bleary eyes. Poof! How quickly all the Ramblers fans seem to have disappeared from this town.
It was a Ramblers-mad NCAA Tournament for what felt like a long time. Are they yesterday’s news already?
On a cantina patio, a boisterous, giddy party of at least a dozen Villanova fans devoured tacos and washed them down with beer.
‘‘Ladies and gentlemen, a question,’’ an interloper said. ‘‘Who here was hoping to play Loyola for the championship?’’
A single hand went up.
‘‘They were a great story,’’ the man said.
‘‘Nah,’’ another said. ‘‘They got lucky. They couldn’t play with us. We’d have killed them.’’
Cold. Crass, though perhaps no more so than interrupting strangers while they’re dining. But also quite possibly true.
Villanova, which will face Michigan for the national title Monday, pretty clearly is the best team in the country. Kansas, which got its doors blown off by the Wildcats on Saturday, undoubtedly would agree. One person’s take, for what it’s worth: Loyola never was going to cut down the nets at the Alamadome. If Michigan didn’t take care of the Ramblers, Villanova would have — likely without too much trouble.
But who took us off on that tangent, anyway? The point here is that it’s all over for the Ramblers — they’ve disappeared — and we’re left to wonder what’s going to become of them and their program. How good will Loyola be? How interested will Chicago be?
‘‘We’re going to be very good for the next couple of years, I can promise you that,’’ freshman Lucas Williamson said.
Almost as soon as most of us got to know them, we’ll have to learn to live without Ben Richardson, Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson, the seniors who did so much to power this Ramblers train.
If we’re going to continue watching Loyola basketball — and wouldn’t it be nice if we did? — we’ll get to learn some new names. One of them is Aher Uguak, a 6-7 wing player who was born in Egypt to South Sudanese parents, grew up in Canada and transferred to Loyola from New Mexico. That would be dizzying and fascinating enough even if he weren’t also a cousin of former Bulls star Luol Deng.
‘‘Y’all are going to know who he is next year,’’ Williamson promised.
Uguak redshirted this season, but he was along for the ride through Dallas, Atlanta and San Antonio, unable to play with his teammates, even though he so wanted to. But one of the beautiful things about being young is having the ability to believe wholeheartedly in such a far-fetched notion as the Ramblers making another run to the Final Four in 2019.
‘‘Hopefully at the beginning of the year they show us some love, and hopefully we start out ranked in the Top 25,’’ Uguak said. ‘‘Next year will be exciting because we have a chance to get back to this position we’re in right now. I think we can become one of those programs that’s considered mid-major but really plays with the best of them and is a high-level program.’’
Coming off the Final Four, all the Ramblers expect Gentile Arena to be packed next season, too. If they didn’t believe like that, they wouldn’t have beaten Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State and won a school-record 32 games. They wouldn’t have come within a well-played half of taking a swing at Villanova for the national title.
But will the seats really be filled on an ongoing basis, like they were in the Ramblers’ last home game — the only sellout of the season?
‘‘I believe in Chicago,’’ said Ingram, who played high school ball at Simeon. ‘‘I think Chicago will care about Loyola from here on. With our success and the things we’ve done? I mean, that should be the legacy this team leaves.’’
However that legacy is defined, its presence here is already missed. The Villanova fans, the Michigan fans, the many Kansas fans still poking around these parts — they’re OK and all, but they hardly represent the underdog, the overachiever, the indomitable spirit.
It’s just blue bloods and basketball now. And tacos. And beer. OK, so it’s not so bad. But it’s also just not the same.