SAN ANTONIO – Two weeks ago, they were a few bounces away from not even getting out of the second round. Now they’re two games away from winning a National Championship.
That’s how the “madness” works in March. It gives you incredible possibilities as the calendar gets ready to turn to April.
Tonight Loyola takes the floor at the Alamodome for their first Final Four game in 55 years against Michigan. The 11th-seeded Ramblers haven’t lost a game since January 31st and have won seven-straight tournament games – three in the Missouri Valley Conference playoffs and then four in the South Region the last two weeks.
To think that all of this might not have happened if it were not for the first three wins of this tournament run for the Ramblers. The MVC in 2018 was going to be a one-bid league, so had the Ramblers dropped one of the games in St. Louis, they wouldn’t have even gotten the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Funny how things works, huh?
“I mean, you could get a tweaked ankle in practice to a star player for us, and lost by one in the conference tournament and we’re not here. You could have a shot bounce in or the other way, and we’re not in after a body of work we felt was good,” said head coach Porter Moser. “I remember being a coach around the country and watching the VCU run and the George Mason run, and how awesome I thought that was.
“That wouldn’t have happened. Those were at-large bids. Those storylines wouldn’t have happened in today’s day and age because they wouldn’t have got in.”
But Loyola did. They didn’t have to put fate in the committee’s hands, which likely would have put them as a high seed in the NIT. Their season would have been over no matter what had that happened, since that tournament’s final was played earlier this week.
Instead the Ramblers will take to the cavernous Alamodome in their first National Semifinal game since 1963. Carrying the famed “Cinderella” label, Loyola has reignited excitement for local College Basketball in Chicago the past few weeks and is the talk of the national scene.
It’s arrived them at Saturday’s moment, as they face third-seeded Michigan for the right to face the winner of the late semifinal between Kansas and Villanova.
“It’s been cool. It’s been really big for the university. I know Coach has talked a lot about how all this stuff has been part of the process,” said guard Ben Richardson of the attention the last week on the team. “And you can’t really plan or control a lot of the stuff going on, the media, the attention from the outside and expectations.”
But they can plan for the Wolverines, a savvy collection of veteran and young players who, like the Ramblers, are playing their best basketball in March. Winners of 13-straight games, the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament then four games in the West Region to advance to their first Final Four since 2013.
Unlike Loyola, there was little stress they would make the field. Entering the conference tournament in New York, they were all but a lock to get an at-large bid.
Junior forward Mo Wagner (team-high 14.3 points per game) and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (12.8 points per game) bring the veteran presence while St. Rita grad Charles Matthews (13 points per game) has added a youthful kick in his first season with the Wolverines.
It’s cohesive group that hopes to bring John Beilein his fist National Championship as a head coach, but the coach has too much respect for Loyola to go down that road just yet.
” hope we play a lot like them. They’re good. They’re good,” said Beilein of the Ramblers. “And I think that they — we have a lot of guys that are unselfish, a lot of guys that shoot the ball well, a lot of people that pass, and we both play very good defensive if you just look at the ratings.
“You look at our assist/turnover numbers — if you look at the stats, just compare the stats between the two teams, you’ll find some remarkable similarities.”
Even if their situations, and maybe even perceptions, are way different.