Every March, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament captures the attention of sports fans. Millions make brackets, attempting to correctly predict the outcomes of 67 games, or at least come close to that number. No one ever does. After all, it is called March Madness. At the end of the day, nobody has any clue what will transpire in March, from the top analysts at ESPN to your clueless friend who picked winners based on school mascots. In fact, it is often the people who know the least about the sport who somehow pick the best brackets.
Bracket-busters emerge each year, upsetting the top college teams and sending millions who picked against them into hysteria. Most of the time, a bracket-buster wins one game, like University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), a No. 16 seed, who prevailed over No. 1 seed UVA, in the first win a No. 16 seed has had on the men’s side of the tournament. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, a bracket-buster might win two. However, there’s nothing quite like a low-seeded team who slashes through the bracket, upsetting team after team after team. These teams form the Cinderella stories and only come every so often. This year, the March Madness tournament has its Cinderella story, and it’s not UMBC beating UVA: it’s Loyola-Chicago.
Yes, that’s right. It isn’t an under-seeded, big-name basketball university like UCLA or Louisville. It’s a mid-sized, academic, private research institution from the Windy City. It’s Loyola-Chicago University. Their biggest fan is a 98-year-old nun by the name of Sister Jean, their mascot is the Rambler, and they hadn’t played in the NCAA tournament in over 33 years. Loyola-Chicago play in the Missouri Valley Conference against colleges with relatively small athletic programs, which contributed to their low seeding at 11. Despite going 28-5 in the 2017-2018 basketball campaign, the Ramblers don’t hail from a huge athletic conference like the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, or Pac-12, which often have multiple teams in the tournament. Winning their own conference, something that would guarantee a No. 1, 2, 3, or 4 seed for teams in the aforementioned conferences, was not enough for Loyola-Chicago to be respected by the seeding committee. They were seeded low, and as a consequence, had a slew of respected teams standing in the way of their path to the Final Four.
Loyola’s first game was against the University of Miami, an ACC team seeded No. 6 in the South Region of the tournament. This game was played in Dallas, Texas, which would end up being the site of a dramatic Loyola victory. According to the People’s Bracket on ESPN, 64 percent of brackets had Miami defeating Loyola. From the get-go, people were picking against the small school from Chicago. For a majority of the game, it seemed like those people had picked correctly. With nine seconds left in the game, Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV was at the free-throw line, with an opportunity to give Miami a three point lead with two free throws. He missed both shots, and Loyola-Chicago had their chance. The Ramblers sprinted down the court, and Marques Townes kicked a ball to the edge of the March Madness logo at half court to Donte Ingram, who drilled the 40-foot shot as time expired to defeat Miami 64-62. A sea of maroon and gold swarmed the court, and Loyola’s run began.
At this point, Loyola fans would have been content with the team’s performance. After all, winning a tournament game for the first time in 33 years is pretty remarkable, especially when one considers it an upset. However, the Ramblers were not done. The Second Round is where most Cinderella stories crumble before they can ever really begin. UMBC lost in the second round after defeating No. 1 seed Virginia, as did Buffalo after beating tournament favorite Arizona. It looked as though Loyola’s fate was set as well, seeing as they were up against SEC powerhouse and No. 3 Tennessee. The game wore on, with Loyola putting pressure on the Volunteers. Once again, Loyola found themselves in possession of the ball with under 10 seconds left, and an opportunity to win the game with one shot. This time, it was Clayton Custer’s shot that bounced off the rim, kissed the backboard, landed softly on the rim again, and slowly rolled into the basket to make the score 63-62 with 3.6 seconds left. Tennessee missed their buzzer-beater attempt, and it became clear that fate wasn’t working against Loyola, but rather was on their side. It seemed that Sister Jean’s pre-game pep talks to the team had some real power behind them.
Despite putting together two upsets already, Loyola entered their Sweet Sixteen matchup with no. 7 seed Nevada as an underdog yet again. Nevada themselves were crafting their own Cinderella story, beating Texas in the first round and no.2 seed Cincinnati in the second round. People wondered if Loyola had finally met their match. They hadn’t. The Ramblers showed their tenacity and effort as a force to be reckoned with it. Once again, the upset required a huge late game shot. This time, Marques Townes played hero. He swished a 3-pointer attempt with 6.3 seconds left to give Loyola an insurmountable four-point lead. Nevada made a 3-pointer of their own, but it was too little too late. Loyola was moving on, making them the eighth no.11 seed to ever advance to the Elite Eight.
Luckily for Loyola-Chicago, fate was on their side in all aspects of the tournament through the first four rounds. Arizona and UVA, the two favorites in the South Region to reach the Final Four, both were upset in the first round. Kansas State emerged from the fray in the top side of the South region as a no.9 seed. This time, however, there was no need for late-game heroics on the part of Loyola. From the start, the Ramblers established a sizeable lead and kept it. They defeated Kansas State 78-62, and punched their ticket to San Antonio for the Final Four. A nation of college basketball fans stands with their mouths hanging open, watching the small Jesuit school from Chicago head to the biggest stage in NCAA basketball without a worry in the world.
The poise displayed by Loyola in each of their four games during the tournament is something you would expect from perennial powerhouses like UNC, Duke, or Kansas. No.11 seeded teams with no tournament experience over the past 33 years have simply never made it this far, and won in this fashion. The Ramblers have not flinched once, calmly draining winning shots as the buzzer sounds like they’re in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, not March Madness. They enter the Final Four as a severe underdog to no.3 seeded Michigan, but it seems this is the way Loyola likes it. Every win of theirs so far has been an upset, so it only seems right that their Final Four game is the most daunting task of all.
Loyola has 13 athletics teams across both men and women. They aren’t a basketball school, and certainly don’t have a large enrollment, with just 16,000 students compared to Michigan’s 45,000, and their biggest fan is a 98-year-old nun, who picked the team to lose in the Sweet Sixteen in her bracket. However, this mesmerizing run the team has put together has placed Loyola in the national spotlight, and they are loving every minute of it. Sister Jean has become a superstar: her spirit and fierce passion for Loyola basketball make it impossible to think otherwise. The city of Chicago is behind the team, shining the school’s colors from the tallest skyscrapers. Everything seems to be coming together for Loyola. No matter what happens in the Final Four, Loyola-Chicago has put together one of greatest Cinderella runs in the tournament’s history.
From being a no.11 seed nobody wanted to pick to being one of four double-digit seeded teams to ever make the Final Four, Loyola has rambled on. All eyes will be fixed on the team on March 31 when they play Michigan, and you can bet underdogs from all over the nation are pulling for the Ramblers.