Rambling to the Sweet 16: No labels needed for Loyola

Loyola breaks a huddle during their practice at Philips Arena before their South Region Semifinal game against Nevada on March 22nd.

ATLANTA – Same as always? Not really.

Not that it’s a flat-out lie when teams say it, but things are different when it comes to last week, two weeks, or even a month ago.

This is the Sweet 16 – the Regional Semifinals – a place they haven’t reached in 33 years and only done so four times in their program’s history. They’re two steps closer to the Final Four than they were a week ago and, at the moment, are the vaunted “Cinderella” of the 16 teams that still remain in the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.

It’s OK for fans to use the term. After all, the monstrosity that “March Madness” has become is due to the exploits of the upset teams that have come to define the month of March for college athletics.

As for the Ramblers themselves, they’re not exactly buying in, even if they are the lowest seed left in the tournament and are in a South Region where the fifth seed is the highest left.

“It wasn’t really something where we went in like ‘We’ve got to be the Cinderella,'” said guard Ben Richardson of the chatter surrounding the Ramblers. “We’ve always believed that we could just play with any of these teams. So inside our locker room in our group, it’s not about going out there and beating the big dogs, it’s about playing how we know we can play.”

That starts Thursday night with seventh-seeded Nevada, who comes to the tournament with a bit less buzz but with just as much drama. The Wolfpack’s exceptional second half rallies – including a 22-point comeback against Cincinnati in the second round – have them earning some picks as a dark horse Final Four team.

As far as pregame hype goes, the Ramblers probably win when it comes to the race for “Cinderella.” Their two buzzer-beating endings along with the far-reaching story of Sister Jean, Loyola probably wins the edge when it comes to fan attention. Yet like Richardson, head coach Porter Moser doesn’t see much changing with his team’s mentality, a fact that he’s preached from the middle of January through the end of March.

“Every step of this journey has been a bigger stage and the guys have enjoyed it and then they’re ready,” said Moser. “It isn’t going to be because we’re not ready, these guys are locked, focused, and ready to go.”

Maybe even motivated to play a little better according to Donte Ingram, who had the first of the buzzer-beaters against sixth-seeded Miami on March 15th. Don’t forget, the Ramblers trailed in the final ten seconds of each of their wins, so finding a way to create some breathing room wouldn’t be a bad idea, even if it does a bit of damage to the outside narrative of the team.

“There are a lot of things that we kinda messed up on that we can clean up,” said Ingram of the first two Loyola wins. “What we take from that is ‘Hey, we won. But the good thing about it is our arrow is still going up, we can still get better from our wins.'”

They hope there are a still a few more to improve from so this continued “Cinderella” narrative grows, whether they choose to embrace it or not.