They’re the coaches of teams that opposed Loyola Chicago when almost nobody was looking, in Chicago or Kansas City or Savannah, Ga., in front of crowds such as 2,814 and 1,482 and 1,133, numbers that illustrate the charm of the Ramblers’ surge to the Final Four, where they will play Michigan on Saturday. The first seven coaches to play Loyola this season have followed this surge in various degrees, and they can report an unseen byproduct:
A fresh hope has sprinkled around the land.
“I’m sure just like every coach at a non-Power Five, especially since we played them and had them on the ropes, it kind of, it just gives you hope,” said Kareem Richardson, whose Missouri-Kansas City team led Loyola Chicago by six at halftime before falling, 66-56, on Nov. 16. “We played those guys down to the wire and no reason that, with a little bit more seasoning . . . ”
First-year UNC Wilmington Coach C.B. McGrath, whose program amassed 29 wins the previous season but got outrun, 102-78, on Nov. 24 in Savannah, sees “a terrific example for every program outside the Power Five” and said, “It can be done no matter what school you’re at and no matter where you’re at, and our guys will remember playing against them and that they were all in sync.”
Eureka College (Ill.) Coach Chip Wilde, one of those yeoman coaches out there who also coaches the men’s golf team, said: “We scored 69 points on them. My guys have been proud of that. ‘We almost got 70 on a Final Four team!’ ” (The Division III Red Devils lost, 96-69, on Nov. 12.)
Kent State Coach Rob Senderoff, whose team fell, 75-60, on Nov. 25 in Savannah, sees a similar conference from his Mid-American in Loyola’s Missouri Valley. He sees a MAC team that was seeded 13th in the NCAA tournament, Buffalo, routing Arizona, giving Kentucky a tussle and proving deserving of a better seed. He said: “Certainly, I say this: Their personnel is very good, but as a coach you sort of think your personnel is comparable,” and, “If a team you’re playing in a similar conference makes it to the Final Four, it’s something you can point to with your players.”
He used phrases like “not unreachable” and “not unobtainable.”
“For us,” said Coach Scott Nagy, whose Wright State played the guest at Loyola Chicago’s opener, lost 84-80 before 2,814 and also reached this NCAA tournament, “The only thing you could take away from it is knowing just in terms of the talent level and how we played, we’re not that far from doing what Loyola’s doing. It gives our kids the confidence of, ‘We could do that.’ ”
'Importance of cohesiveness'
By now, the nation sees all these things these coaches saw in November. In the voluminous annals of the phrase “share the ball,” it sees in the Ramblers peak “share the ball.”
It sees a Loyola Chicago team with four different scoring leaders in four NCAA tournament games: Clayton Custer with 14 against Miami, Aundre Jackson with 16 against Tennessee, Marques Townes with 18 against Nevada and Ben Richardson with 23 against Kansas State; four guys in double figures against Tennessee, three against Nevada and Kansas State. It sees Richardson, with zero points on one shot and eight assists and five rebounds in the first round, with 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting with four assists and six rebounds in the regional final.
While none of the November coaches necessarily saw Loyola Chicago in a Final Four, all saw the sumptuous little things.
From his geographic proximity in Illinois, Wilde of Eureka College had studied Coach Porter Moser’s Loyola Chicago team for several years and had felt something building last year, when the Ramblers went 18-14 and were “pretty damned good,” he said, even if the thing he felt building wasn’t necessarily a Final Four appearance. He notes details such as “clapping for each other and helping each other off the floor,” and the sheer “amount of small things like their reverse layups,” which figured into their layup barrages against Nevada and Kansas State.
Wilde sees another element he finds sometimes missing in the big-time college game.
It’s commonly known as “fun.”
McGrath of UNC Wilmington noticed that it “didn’t matter if they played two, five minutes, they were all in.” Samford’s Scott Padgett, whose team lost, 88-67, to the Ramblers on Nov. 19, said he saw how “they constantly communicate at the defensive end,” and then, at the other end: “Whoever’s the open guy gets the shot. Whoever the hot guy is that day, they find a way to get that guy the ball.”
Andre Payne, whose Mississippi Valley State team led Loyola Chicago 31-28 at halftime in Chicago on Nov. 21 before losing, 63-50, cited “the team camaraderie. They weren’t afraid to make that extra pass. They moved the ball so well. I think that was the key. They’ve got so many people in the game that can hurt you. It was hard to identify who we needed to stop.”
He concluded: “They’re not afraid to give up a good shot for a great shot.”
Richardson of Missouri-Kansas City, the only team to play Loyola Chicago at home in November (that 66-56 scrap), saw a group that had “been through the wars, so to speak. They don’t get rattled.”
Nagy found their experience clearly visible out on the floor and noted “not only their depth,” but how “the ages of kids just makes such a big difference.” He said: “I think it just shows the importance of cohesiveness. You’ve got to have good players, okay? But if you have good players willing to put the team first, and that’s hard to do in this day and age . . .”
Nagy, the former South Dakota State mainstay, laments what he calls “self-glorification,” and finds Loyola Chicago blissfully free of same.
'A really good team we lost to'
Then there are those things an opposing coach can feel more in real life than on video, things a novice might not even notice amid all the ball-sharing beauty. On tape, McGrath of UNC Wilmington said, “You can’t tell how athletic they are, how good their feet are, really,” or “how well they defend,” or how they kept UNC Wilmington from its desired touches in the paint, or “the speed with which they get downcourt.”
Senderoff of Kent State and Padgett of Samford brought up something underrated with the Ramblers: physicality.
Senderoff: “I would say this: They’re really, really physical. I think that while they don’t have great size outside of [Cameron] Krutwig, I think they’re all hard defenders. The physicality they play with, to me, was impressive.” Look at their tournament scores, he said: 64-62, 63-62, 69-68, 78-62.
Padgett: “They’re a smaller team, actually, but they play big in that they’re physical, they hit you early as far as boxing out. With us, they matched everything and almost just tried to keep the ball out of the paint.”
By now, Padgett compares the ball-sharing Ramblers to the team Padgett graced here in San Antonio at the 1998 Final Four, that rare unexpected national champion from Kentucky. Yet much like most Americans, McGrath’s UNC Wilmington players remained unfamiliar with the Loyola Chicago players at tipoff. In the interest of preserving his team’s confidence, he said, “I told my team, ‘You shouldn’t feel good, but that’s a really good team that we lost to.’ ”
Everyone who bothers to look knows that now, from the Missouri Valley Conference to four teams that bowed out to the Ramblers in this tournament to Michigan Coach John Beilein and his players, who are up next, and right on back to Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., whose Class of 1932 included one Ronald Reagan, whose enrollment runs about 675, and whose basketball players ran across a Final Four team one day in November, even if nobody knew it.
“I think Red Devil Nation is right there with Sister Jean and Rambler Nation,” Wilde said.
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