What makes the NCAA tournament so captivating? The teams that capture our hearts while busting our brackets—and this year the first two rounds hit Peak Madness. The Retrievers, the Wolfpack—and the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago, who don't want to be known as CINDERELLA but sure fit the profile
THE NCAA TOURNAMENT'S opening weekend always gives us the team that makes us smile even as it busts our brackets. The team that comes out of nowhere to beat the buzzer and slay the giant. The team that gives us a player who becomes a legend over a few short days in March.
Then the team loses, the Madness ends, the years pass—but still we remember. George Mason. Northern Iowa. Florida Gulf Coast. The name we assign to this team and its predecessors reflects the limited time the players have in the spotlight, as if the clock might strike midnight at any second and....
No, 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago doesn't want to hear about glass slippers or the team bus turning into a pumpkin. Instead, the Ramblers want you to notice how well they space the floor on offense. They want you to marvel at the way they close out on jump shooters. They want you to see how they can play outside-in or inside-out depending on what the defense gives them. As they prepare to face seventh-seeded Nevada—their lowest-seeded opponent so far thanks to the Wolf Pack's upset of No. 2 seed Cincinnati—in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, they'd rather inspire oooooh than awwwwwww.
"We're not content," Loyola-Chicago wing Donte Ingram said moments after draining a three-pointer with .3 of a second remaining in Dallas to beat No. 6 seed Miami 64--62 in the first round. "We can win any game we're put in."
"We don't scare you?" asked 6'1", 185-pound guard Clayton Custer minutes after shooting a 13-foot fadeaway and watching from his back as it hit the rim, then the backboard before dropping through the net with 3.6 seconds left for a 63--62 second-round win over third-seeded Tennessee. "I think we're pretty scary."
Maybe so, but thanks to Ingram and Custer—two players who qualify as legends—the Ramblers, more so than UMBC (the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in 136 tries), Texas A&M (who demolished defending champ UNC), Nevada and the other giant-killing teams of 2018, are the ultimate embodiment of everyone's favorite March fable ... right down to the dead ringer for the fairy godmother. Let us count the ways.
1. THEY HAVEN'T DANCED IN A WHILE
Loyola-Chicago's last tournament appearance came in 1985, when it reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed and lost to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. The Ramblers have won a national title, though it was in another era altogether. Three years before Texas Western started five black players and beat Kentucky for the national title, Loyola started four black players to defeat Cincinnati in the 1963 NCAA final. The Ramblers almost advanced to the Elite Eight by forfeit; Mississippi State had been forbidden by state officials from competing against integrated teams. But the Bulldogs sneaked out to play in East Lansing, Mich., losing 61--51. The "Game of Change" was a seminal moment in sports, and the current Ramblers embrace their program's role in it.
2. THEY HAVE A COACH WHO'S MAKING AN INSTANT NAME FOR HIMSELF
When the Ramblers hired Porter Moser as coach in 2011, they were circling the drain in the Horizon League. They had one player on the roster from Illinois and barely registered on the radar of Chicago-area recruits. Gentile Arena was a ghost town.
The 49-year-old Moser engaged in what he calls a "grassroots rebuild." His first local recruiting victory, in 2013--14, came in the form of 6'4" guard Milton Doyle—from Chicago's Marshall High—who helped the Ramblers make the transition from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference and acted as a pied piper for other players before finishing his career in 2017 and heading to the Long Island Nets of the NBA's G League. One of the players from Chicago who followed was 6'6" senior wing Donte Ingram, a grad of Simeon High; another was 6'4" freshman sixth man Lucas Williamson, from Whitney Young High.
Moser also stressed winning pedigrees. Guard Ben Richardson, who signed in 2014, helped Blue Valley Northwest High take two Kansas state titles. And when Custer—Richardson's teammate since third grade—decided to leave after his freshman season at Iowa State, Moser snapped him up, too. Moser's rebuild began showing dividends in his fourth year when the Ramblers went 24--13 and won the 2015 College Basketball Invitational tournament. But they didn't look like a dangerous team this season until Dec. 5, when they prevailed at Florida 65--59. The fans came, too. Home games have become a much hotter ticket. And while the American Airlines Center was dominated by Texas Tech fans, thousands of Loyola-Chicago supporters made the trip with maroon-and-gold scarves that made them look as if they were pulling for Harry Potter to grab the Golden Snitch for Gryffindor.
3. THEY HAVE SOMEONE WHOSE SMILE WINS OVER EVEN THE HARDEST HEART
Do they ever. After taking the job, Moser found a folder on his desk containing a scouting report on his team. The report's author? Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, a nun who in 1961 began teaching at Mundelein College, a Catholic school that merged with Loyola-Chicago in '91. Now 98, Sister Jean has served as the team's chaplain since '94 and still compiles scouting reports on all the Ramblers' opponents. She also occasionally asks her boss for favors on the team's behalf. Please, God, Sister Jean thought as Ingram's final shot against Miami sailed through the air on March 15. Let him make it.
The day before the Volunteers game, an email from Sister Jean popped into the in-box of each Rambler telling them to watch out for forward Admiral Schofield and guards Grant Williams and Jordan Bone. Before tip-off she had more advice: "Don't let the Tennessee team members scare you with their height," she said. "Height doesn't mean that much. You're good jumpers. You're good rebounders. You're good at everything. Just keep that in mind."
Sister Jean nailed her scouting report. Schofield scored 11 points in the game's first five minutes. Williams got fouled while making a layup and hit the free throw to put the Vols up 62--61 with 20.1 seconds remaining. Bone took a three-pointer at the buzzer after Custer gave Loyola-Chicago a one-point cushion. That shot clanged off the rim, and Sister Jean and the Ramblers danced on to the tournament's second weekend.
4. THEY HAVE CATCHPHRASES
The Ramblers have almost too many of them. "No finish line" was the most popular in Dallas, followed closely by "Put it in the bank." They uttered that second one both times tournament officials presented them with a bracket—about the size of one of those giant novelty checks lottery winners get—and asked a player to enter Loyola-Chicago in the next round.
Those two may soon find their way onto a maroon wall in the Ramblers' locker room back home. The Wall of Culture displays phrases Moser has collected during a career that includes head-coaching stints at Arkansas--Little Rock (2000 to '03) and Illinois State ('03 to '07). The period when Moser soaked up the most knowledge came after he was fired at Illinois State and Rick Majerus hired Moser as an assistant at Saint Louis. Majerus died in 2012, but many of his words still live on the Wall of Culture.
They include "When the ball moves, you move" and "Fake a pass to make a pass." About halfway down and just to the right of center is "Give a verbal." This last one came in handy against Miami. It not only instructs players to talk on the court but also directs them to speak in the most efficient manner possible. An open man shouldn't clap, scream or say Hey! Over here! He should yell the name of the person who has the ball.
That's precisely what Ingram did as the clock raced toward zero. "MAR-QUES!" he screamed. Did Townes hear it?
"Loud and clear," Townes says. "Loud and clear." Ingram had picked himself up off the ground on the other end of the court following a failed rebound attempt. He had trailed the break. He had settled on the far left edge of the March Madness logo that adorned midcourt, about five feet from the top of the key. He yelled his roommate's name, and then the ball came. Ingram caught the pass, rose and fired. The prayer was answered.
5. THEY HAVE PLAYERS WHO COULD PLAY FOR A HIGH-MAJOR PROGRAM
Loyola has at least two. The first is Custer, who probably would have done just fine in the Big 12 had he chosen not to transfer. The second is Cameron Krutwig, a 6'9" freshman from the Chicago suburb of Algonquin, who talks like a senior and frustrates much taller defenders with an array of slick post moves.
Krutwig had about 20 scholarship offers—including from Alabama-Birmingham and Vermont—but he chose to stay close to home because Moser was one of the first coaches to offer him a scholarship and because he clicked with the players. He arrived weighing 260 pounds, lost 30 between May and October, and turned into a stretch four. His ability to pass out of the post has allowed the Ramblers to run their offense through him. This can lead to layups for Krutwig or open threes for the guards. Krutwig scored seven points and dished out four assists against Tennessee, but his biggest contribution was frustrating the inexperienced players who tried to replace injured Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander. That forced the Vols to go small and negated their length advantage.
6. THEY HAVE A HEARTWARMING STORY ON THE COURT
That would be Richardson and Custer, who grew up on the same street in Overland Park. They were sixth-graders when Kansas guard Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime against Memphis in the national title game, which the Jayhawks went on to win. Nearly every sixth-grader in metro Kansas City wanted to perfect the Chalmers shot. So Richardson would play Sherron Collins and throw the pass. Custer would play Chalmers and sink the shot. Then they'd switch.
They went 94--6 as high school teammates, but they initially went their separate ways for college. After Custer played sparingly in 12 games as a freshman at Iowa State, he decided to reunite with Richardson.
Now, sixth-graders in the Kansas City and Chicago areas will spend hours re-creating Custer's last salvo against Tennessee. "The ball was like it was in slow motion," Custer says. "I'll never forget that feeling, just laying there." Richardson had seen Custer take that specific shot from the right elbow at least a thousand times. Even when it hit the rim first, he didn't worry. "It is fitting that he hits a big shot going one, two, pull-up, like we've been doing in the gym for our whole lives," Richardson says.
THE RAMBLERS have written their names into tournament lore, and they feel they have more to accomplish. As much as they love their team chaplain, they're going to try to bust her bracket.
"Sister Jean does have us going out in the Sweet 16," Custer says. "So we have to prove her wrong."
"YOU'RE GOOD JUMPERS. YOU'RE GOOD REBOUNDERS. YOU'RE GOOD AT EVERYTHING."
—Sister Jean, in a pregame pep talk