Bad news, folks. It’s about your readopted favorite team, the Loyola Ramblers.
There’s no easy way to say this, but the party’s over. Maybe next year. It’s been a slice.
Well, the Ramblers aren’t technically finished yet. First, the West region’s No. 8 seeds must take their medicine from a terrifying Oregon State squad Saturday afternoon in a Sweet 16 matchup at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
What makes the 12th-seeded Beavers terrifying? It’s not what they are: a 12-loss team that got on a season-saving hot streak in the Pac-12 tournament and now has its school’s first two NCAA Tournament victories since 1982. It’s what they aren’t: expected by anyone who has ever bounced a basketball to beat Loyola.
How is the March magic of Cameron Krutwig, Lucas Williamson, Porter Moser and Sister Jean supposed to contend with that?
This has been a long-winded, perhaps confusing way of saying that nothing about this tournament has made a lick of sense. Up is down. Right is left. Good is bad. And so on.
So, yeah, the Ramblers are in trouble. Or maybe not. Look, they’re better than the Beavers. They were much better throughout the regular season. They certainly have more tournament pedigree, even if they still bear the scent of new money themselves. They dominated a No. 1 seed, Illinois — hadn’t you heard? — in the Round of 32. But this tournament has been bonkers, which I may have already mentioned.
Also: Isn’t Loyola’s whole postseason identity wrapped up in being the underdog? It could be that’s merely how those of us who tell the stories about the Ramblers present this team to the world. Moser and his players might laugh at the underdog narrative by now, and probably should. Either way, this game feels just plain different.
The Ramblers are favorites now. No, not to win the national championship, but to stay in the hunt. That’s what happens when the Big Ten, a league reputed to be the best in the land heading into the tournament, face-plants spectacularly. It’s what happens when 1s, 2s, 3s and 4s fall like dominoes. You begin to search for true quality remaining in the muck and mire of the bracket and find the Ramblers looking like one of the best teams still out there.
Monday was the least-weird day through two rounds of the tournament. West No. 1 Gonzaga performed like the best team in the country in an 87-71 win against Oklahoma. East No. 1 Michigan — the Big Ten’s saving grace — battled from behind and put away LSU 86-78.
But even Monday began with West No. 2 Iowa getting launched into the sun 95-80 by seventh-seeded Oregon. That score doesn’t do justice to how lopsided things were. Luka Garza, the star of stars in the Big Ten, scored 36 points but might as well have been twiddling his thumbs and whistling “The Song of Iowa.” The Hawkeyes were going to get blown out regardless.
The Big Ten got nine teams into this tournament. One — Michigan — survived two rounds. Illinois forgot to show up against Loyola. Iowa’s fellow No. 2 seed, Ohio State, couldn’t even handle a first-round assignment against Oral Roberts. No. 4 seed Purdue did everything but play dead in the first round against North Texas. What an overall embarrassment for the league, although it’s always helpful to remember the Big Ten still hasn’t won it all since Michigan State in 2000.
Speaking of Michigan State, nice try against UCLA in that play-in game, fellas. Why does it always just seem like the Spartans have a run in them in March? That’s the only reason I can think of why I picked them in my bracket to advance to the Elite Eight.
How’s your bracket holding up? No need to answer. Most of us have blown it big-time. I did have Iowa losing to Oregon — please, no applause necessary — but I also had Illinois in the Final Four, Ohio State in the Elite Eight and, of course, Loyola out during the first weekend.
It has been a strange year in every sense, certainly in sports. It has been a strangest-ever college basketball season. Yes, this tournament — with upsets galore, mere smatterings of fans on hand to witness them and one COVID-19 game cancellation so far — is strange, too.
And now, Loyola — clearly capable of beating anybody — has a different feel to go with it. This run isn’t like the 2018 one.
But as Moser told his team at center court after shocking the Illini: “Let’s enjoy the moment.”
Even when they take the court against terrifying Oregon State. Who knows? They might even do something really crazy and win again like they’re supposed to.