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Loyola’s Donte Ingram, Nevada’s Jordan Caroline share sweet reunion in Atlanta

ATLANTA — Twelve paces. That’s all that separates the doors to the locker rooms of Loyola and Nevada in the bowels of Philips Arena. Gee, couldn’t the folks running this event have put the Sweet 16 combatants any closer together? Let’s hope emotions don’t run extra-high when the teams play Thursday, but of course they will. It’s March Madness.

Yet there’s hope that all will remain sporting and civil enough, for there were Ramblers point guard Clayton Custer and Wolf Pack reserve guard Hallice Cooke hugging it out Wednesday near the tiny hallway in which both locker rooms reside. They once were teammates at Iowa State, Custer a freshman and Cooke a redshirt.

Cooke and Ramblers guard Marques Townes took selfies against a barren wall, their bright smiles adornment enough. Old friends from New Jersey, they were one year apart in the same AAU club.

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Nevada's Jordan Caroline (left) and Loyola's Donte Ingram will be together again Thursday.

Closer still — such a small world, college basketball — are Donte Ingram, the 6-6 senior who hit the buzzer-beater that propelled the Ramblers into the second round, and Wolf Pack 6-7 bruiser Jordan Caroline, his team’s top rebounder and second-leading scorer. When they go head-to-head Thursday, one defending the other, the déjà vu might drown out the roars of the crowd.

Ten years ago, they were club teammates in Champaign. Ingram, then living half an hour away in Danville, had played middle school games in Champaign and caught the eye of an AAU coach. He was long and hardworking. Caroline — son of Illinois and NFL star Simeon Rice and grandson of former Bears standout J.C. Caroline — was more impressively put together.

For five years, they were Team Trouble-mates and travel mates who shared monstrous meals at their coach’s house and videogame marathons in hotel rooms.

Ingram (far left, pointing) and Caroline (preparing to jump center) in their Team Trouble days. (Photo courtesy of Donte Ingram)

“That’s my boy,” Caroline said. “We go back a long ways.”

After their sophomore years of high school, though, they went separate ways — Ingram north to Simeon, a state-championship factory, and Caroline southeast to Florida’s Montverde Academy, a national powerhouse.

“Who would think we’d end up playing each other in the Sweet 16?” Ingram said.

Five years ago, who’d have thought about them at all?

Ingram spent his junior season at Simeon as a sixth man, deep in the shadows of the eventual No. 2 overall NBA draft pick in 2014, Jabari Parker, and the rest of a starting five that all went high-Division I. As a senior, Ingram again was far from the top of the list of Wolverines recruits.

At Montverde, Caroline was teammates with D’Angelo Russell, who became the NBA’s No. 2 pick in 2015, and Ben Simmons, who went No. 1 overall a year later. (He just missed 2014 No. 3 pick Joel Embiid by a year.) Others on Caroline’s team included McDonald’s All-Americans Dakari Johnson and Kasey Hill, who would go to Kentucky and Florida, respectively.

But just look at Ingram and Caroline now, at a point — the Sweet 16 — that Parker, Russell and Simmons never reached.

“That’s crazy,” Caroline said. “They’re off making millions of dollars, though.”

Yet for two hours Thursday, the stage will belong to a couple of old pals who’ve stepped out of the shadows with “shining moments” that will live on in NCAA Tournament lore.

“Everybody has their own path,” Ingram said. “People do things differently and go different ways, but if you stick with what you want to do and you just stick with the process, then you never know — you can be here.”

“Here” as in two boys turned men, inches apart, chest-to-chest — enemies for one night only. Though, technically, they agreed to stop texting each other after Tuesday night.

Said Ingram: “He’s a good player, but I’ve got to find ways to get him stopped.”

And Caroline: “I’m so excited for it. I’m just ready for the matchup.”

Twelve paces. Two doors. And a shared boyhood dream that has blossomed into something unforgettable.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com