A few years ago, while covering the college basketball beat for Grantland, I wrote a story about the “certifiable wasteland” that was the NCAA hoops scene in Chicago. The contradiction I tried to unpack was straightforward: Chicago and its suburbs produce a slew of talented prospects, yet Northwestern and DePaul—the area’s two major-conference programs, both of which market themselves as “Chicago’s team”—muck around in mediocrity.
When the piece was published, I was surprised by the feedback. It wasn’t fans of the Wildcats or Blue Demons who hopped into my mentions; most of them nodded along knowingly or stayed silent altogether. Instead, it was the Loyola faithful who busted out of the woodwork, inviting me to games and questioning my analytic ability. Why hadn’t I ridden the L up to Gentile Arena? Why hadn’t I given the Ramblers their due?
That Loyola would soon represent Chicago’s greatest chance at March Madness glory seemed preposterous at the time. The school had played in exactly three NCAA tournament games since the Johnson administration. From 1986 on, they’d never lost fewer than 10 contests in any season. They were irrelevant on the very best of days. Reporting in Rogers Park never even occurred to me.
Yet here we are, in the year of our lord 2018, and the Jesuits have proven me wrong. Northwestern broke its high-profile NCAA tournament drought last spring and then wilted under the spotlight, badly regressing to the mean this winter. DePaul opened its sparkling arena and then, in front of sparse crowds, endured its 11th straight losing season. Left standing are the Ramblers: the Missouri Valley conference champions, at 28-5; the only school from Illinois to qualify for the Big Dance in 2018; and, on Thursday afternoon, a potential bracket buster. I suppose nothing in the world should surprise anyone anymore.
Credit starts with head coach Porter Moser, a Naperville native and Rick Majerus acolyte who took over as head coach in 2011. Loyola’s athletic department gave Moser a long leash, and he used up a lot of that slack, posting a combined 32-61 record during his first three years on the job. But the energetic and meticulous 49-year-old eventually attracted the type of players that would fit the style of play he wanted to employ, and results have followed.
The Ramblers strength is on the defensive end; only tournament favorites Duke and Villanova have posted a lower defensive efficiency rating while fouling fewer players. Stingy and disciplined, the Ramblers clock in at fifth in scoring defense, and they’ve done so without a single player fouling out all season. It’s a remarkable feat for a roster whose effective height (325th nationally) ranks near the absolute bottom of all Division 1 schools. Led by senior guard Ben Richardson, the conference defensive player of the year and “the most competitive defender” that Moser has ever coached, they get it done with proper positioning, hand placement, and absolute effort.
Richardson’s contributions on the floor are sizable, but it’s his unexpected work on the recruiting front that sped Loyola’s rebuild into high-gear. Back in his hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, Richardson lived down the block from his best friend, Clayton Custer. The pair played organized basketball starting in third grade, and then won two state titles together in high school. Custer, a point guard and the more sought-after recruit, signed with Iowa State. A year later, trapped on the Cyclones’ depth chart behind All-American Monté Morris (no shame there), he decided to transfer. Creighton and Missouri expressed interest.
Richardson convinced his pal to swing by Loyola first. “If worst comes to worst,” Richardson told him at the time, “you have a weekend with me in Chicago and you have four more visits.”
Custer fell in love and committed on the spot. And after sitting out the 2016 season because of NCAA transfer rules, he’s been a revelation, a dead-eyed jump shooter with good handle and impressive intuition, and the perfect centerpiece for the motion offense that Moser picked up from Majerus. It’s a scheme that’s beautiful to watch when in sync, reliant on spacing and ball reversals that shift the defense from one side of the floor to the other, creating clear lanes towards the basket or open looks for shooters. Custer is its efficient engine, knocking down 45 percent of this three-pointers and dishing out assists on 26 percent of his team’s made baskets. Two weeks ago, the Missouri Valley named him their player of the year.
Four other ball-handling Ramblers average in double figures. A good chunk of those teammates are local, which is intentional; Moser deemed it important to reconnect Loyola to Chicago’s robust pipeline, one that other area schools had not yet pilfered. There’s senior wing Donte Ingram (Simeon), the team’s most reliable defensive rebounder. Steady guard Lucas Williamson (Whitney Young) was added to the Missouri Valley’s All-Freshman team, as was Cameron Krutwig, a 6’9” center from Jacobs High in suburban Algonquin. This summer, Krutwig shed 35 pounds off his large frame, and he’s provided the Ramblers with a bruising presence inside, showing footwork and vision well beyond his years.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the ingredients for a collegiate winner. Dropping just two games when fully healthy (Custer missed some time with a dinged ankle), Loyola finished the regular season ranked at 42 on Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-free efficiency ratings, its highest finish this decade by an order of magnitude. On Sunday, they landed an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament and a date in Dallas with the University of Miami.
It’s a pretty choice matchup, all things considered. Miami has had a see-saw season, jumping out to a hot start (thanks to a soft non-conference schedule) and then floating back to earth in ACC play. Their best player, Bruce Brown, is sidelined with a foot injury. Richardson will likely check Lonnie Walker IV, the Canes’ other NBA prospect, an explosive and hirsute freshman who also has a tendency to drift away from the rim and disappear in games. Miami’s length might bother Loyola, especially on the defensive glass. Head coach Jim Larranaga has had plenty of success in March, too. (Remember George Mason?) And Loyola, for all its wins, has only knocked off one top-100 team.
Still, the game is essentially a coin flip: KenPom predicts a 68-67 UM victory, while Las Vegas is listing Miami as 1.5 point favorites as of Tuesday morning. All it takes is one late bucket, one timely stop.
Should Loyola escape the first round, they’d probably face Tennessee on Saturday, a fairly soft three-seed. Per 538’s system, Loyola has a 14 percent chance to win twice and advance into the Sweet 16; only two double-digit seeds, Butler and New Mexico State, have better odds.
The last time the Ramblers made it to the tournament’s second weekend? The year was 1985. The opponent was Georgetown, anchored by Patrick Ewing. Bruno’s, on North Sheridan, sold some 40 cases of beer during a halftime rush. Loyola dealt with foul trouble throughout and couldn’t deny the Jamaican-American seven-footer, ultimately falling 65-53.
Afterwards, according to the Tribune, “hundreds of Loyola students filled Sheridan Road with cheers and volleys of toilet paper. The ammunition was provided by housing director Bernard Pleskoff, who confessed that he stocked extra toilet paper in the school’s dormitories for the game.”
If Loyola is truly Chicago’s team, I’d expect those bathrooms to be fully stocked.