The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago; Jason Kaestner is a long-time contributor to The D & Davis Show and WARR who is now based in Washington D.C.
The Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team is poised to play the role of Cinderella in NCAA tournament brackets across the country as the brackets for March Madness are revealed later today.
As a Loyola alumnus under 30, this is uncharted territory. Whether as a dark-horse pick or an assumed first-round loser, not much attention is typically given to my dear school encompassed by Rogers Park and Chicago’s north shore with Lake Michigan.
Thirty-three years is a long time to miss out on the Big Dance. For perspective sake, remember that the Chicago Bears had not yet appeared in a Super Bowl when Loyola last participated in a March Madness. It was only March of 1985 and given its timing tucked in-between the end of football, the baseball teams still in better climates during Spring Training and with no meaningful games occurring for the Blackhawks or Bulls, Loyola got to experience a good deal of spotlight as a team that would eventually represent Chicago with a Sweet 16 berth.
The more things change, huh?
The week of buildup we’ve had to endure since the Ramblers clinched a spot in the tournament by winning “Arch Madness” in St. Louis, which hosts the Missouri Valley Conference tournament yearly, has been equal parts nervousness and anticipation.
Conversely, my time on campus corresponded with arguably the darkest days for the basketball program. A decade ago the Ramblers languished at the bottom of the Horizon League. At the time the Gentile Center was a facility inadequate for Division I but it still felt cavernous for games considering the meager attendance. To say things were bleak would be an understatement.
I could not be more pleased that coach Porter Moser has brought the Ramblers back to relevance for the first time in decades. However, when he arrived in 2011 only the most optimistic students and alumni would have predicted any twenty-win seasons to come. Under his predecessor, Jim Whitesell, the Ramblers had finished eighth in three consecutive seasons. To be fair, Whitesell managed to go 107-105 in his seven season at the helm. Still, Loyola was mired in mediocrity with no end in sight.
In hindsight, 2011 was less a regime change than a comprehensive resurgence. Moser was hired in conjunction with the reopening of a much improved Gentile Center and a completely new state-of-the-art training facility. Such sweeping changes never guarantee on-court success (sorry, DePaul), but Moser has certainly made the most of the improvements.
The on-court presence of Clayton Custer (1st team All-MVC) and Donte Ingram (2nd team All-MVC) speak to the caliber of recruits those upgrades have attracted. Custer and Ingram also represent two elements of a formula that could sustain Loyola basketball for years to come — Custer transferred to the Ramblers from Iowa State, where he was recruited and first coached by current Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg and he brought with him a steadiness and a confidence as a lead guard that you could expect from a player who has had top coaching and experience in a high major conference.
Ingram has been a truly special player for Loyola, a four-year player with an older brother who once played for us and as a player who played and won in the Chicago Public League for Simeon along with winning at Loyola he hopefully provides a new path for other city kids to take who may not get the most attention coming out of high school but still have much to offer a college program.
Nonetheless, a pessimist might still be inclined to dismiss Loyola’s accomplishments. The Missouri Valley Conference the Rambler program recently entered was weakened tremendously by Wichita State’s departure to the American Conference and a down year from Northern Iowa doubtlessly made things easier for the Ramblers this year, though the conference was quite balanced — half of the 10-team Valley had at least 18 wins and another half had at least nine conference wins with none of the teams having less than six.
Still, the Valley won’t have any at-large NCAA berths unlike in years past when teams like Wichita, UNI, Southern Illinois and Drake could all have tourney-worthy seasons in a given year. Loyola could have left itself on the bubble with a 27-win season had they lost last Sunday but the team took control of its destiny, boosted itself to a 28-5 record with a conference title and MVC Player of the Year awards (Custer) and Coach of the Year awards in tow. Things look far different from when this team only won a single Horizon League game during Moser’s first season.
No doubt the place to be for Selection Sunday is the Gentile Center. Loyola announced they will be hosting an official watch party with doors opening at 4 pm. Anyone interested in jumping on the Loyola bandwagon should consider joining the Rambler faithful on campus. Living out of state, I will have to sit this one out, but you can bet I will be glued to my television.
And hey, maybe I’ll be around for the next Selection Sunday watch party. It doesn’t seem so far off this time.
Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio; Justin Dukes is a Chicago-based sports writer, follow him on Twitter @1kingzdream