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Loyola the Basketball School Is Weird

The not-so-sporty campus is ignited—and people aren’t sure what to make of it.

Strange days.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

By now, all of Chicago knows Loyola’s Cinderella story: the no-name 11-seed, projected to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament, who rolled through Miami and Tennessee on their way to a second weekend of gameplay.

But despite having landed their first ticket to the Sweet 16 since 1985, at a Monday press conference, the Ramblers were sharing a cramped gym with the practicing Loyola women’s volleyball team. At one point, a stray ball even hit guard Ben Richardson in the head.

“That’s going on the bloopers,” said the six-foot-three senior.

The scene encapsulated the absurdity of the ascendant 2018 Ramblers. In terms of infrastructure, Loyola pales in comparison to power-conference hoops schools DePaul and Northwestern. This fall, the Blue Demons moved into a new, $173 million court near McCormick Place; likewise, Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan arena is undergoing a $110 million renovation. The Ramblers, on the other hand, practice where they play home games: the 4,963-seat Gentile Arena. It’s Loyola’s only gym, shared by its men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams.

No matter. DePaul and Northwestern won a combined 26 games this winter. Loyola has won 30, and are hoping for two more this weekend.

Amid the Ramblers’ improbable success, Loyola’s campus is aglow. Zac Gallagher, a senior studying software engineering, has not seen anything quite like it. “Before, maybe my freshman or sophomore year, just based on what the students were wearing you wouldn’t know what school you were going to.” Now, he says, it’s all maroon and gold. “Looking like Gryffindor.”

In the olden days, Gallagher and his pals would head to Ramblers basketball games only to snag a free t-shirt and leave. “Now, we’re all bandwagoning.”

It didn’t happen overnight. The Ramblers, once a respectable team and the 1963 national champs, have been rising from the ashes for years under head coach Porter Moser. They finished with only seven victories in 2012, the year he took over, but surged to 24 in 2015 and pumped out 18 last year. 

Basketball fever finally took hold early this winter. With patient offense and a stifling defense, Loyola dominated the Missouri Valley Conference. After winning both the regular-season and conference tournament championship, they generated buzz as a trendy upset pick. (We teased the possibility here.)

And now, the plucky mid-major has rewarded its believers. “I’m happy for the guys,” Moser said on Monday. “They’ve invested and done it the right way, getting to this point. The student body, the university, and the community all being connected—how fun is that?” 

Added freshman guard Lucas Williamson, a product of Whitney Young: “I’ll be walking through my dorm and there’s a bunch of people saying congratulations.” Indeed, more than 400 fans welcomed the team home Sunday after its victories in Dallas.

The Ramblers’ next run won’t be easy. They face 7-seed Nevada tonight, and should they win, either Kentucky or Kansas State on Saturday. Even Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the team’s tack-sharp 98-year-old chaplain who became a viral darling last weekend, bounced the Ramblers from her bracket in the Sweet 16. 

Now the not-so-sporty school where men’s volleyball once wielded the sole claim to fame will look to prove her wrong. Moser says his players are prepared for the Wolf Pack—and the spotlight it brings. “These guys are going to be locked in,” he said. “We’ve got our foot on the pedal. We feel like we’re chasing, and we’re going to chase some more.” 

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