Growing from the success of March Madness

Guard Ben Richardson (pictured) scored 23 points in the Elite Eight against Kansas State. Photo by Hanako Maki / Loyola Phoenix.

The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers had gained popularity since Final Four appearance

Any Concordia student who watched the 2018 March Madness—the national tournament for university men’s basketball in the United States—probably remembers the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers for its similarities to Concordia. Their maroon and gold colours replicate those of the Stingers, and like Concordia’s Loyola College, Loyola University Chicago was also founded by Jesuits.

Head coach Porter Moser (centre) celebrates the Ramblers’s appearance in the Final Four. Photo by Hanako Maki / Loyola Phoenix.

Despite the connections between the two schools, what the Ramblers did on the court is what they will be remembered for the most. They upset everybody as an #11 seed in the South Region to make the tournament’s Final Four, before losing to the eventual finalists, the Michigan Wolverines.

“There are days when it doesn’t feel real,” said Loyola Phoenix sports editor Nick Schultz, who has covered the team since the 2016-17 season. “I’m from a town of about 4,000 people in central Illinois, and there I was in the Alamodome in San Antonio [for the Final Four] with 70,000 of my closest friends. It was wild.”

The Ramblers, who won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship last year and played in their first March Madness tournament since 1985. Being in a city like Chicago, with one team in the NHL, NFL, and NBA, plus two teams in the MLB, the Ramblers lack coverage from mainstream local media.

“I was the only one there every game last year,” said Schultz, who saw the Ramblers’s popularity grow throughout the season. “Then the Chicago Tribune started coming when Loyola beat the number five team in the country [Florida Gators] in December. Then they started winning through conference play and the Chicago Sun-Times started showing up, then all the TV stations, then ESPN. It was weird seeing the evolution.”

Once the Ramblers got to the national tournament in March, one person was stealing headlines, and it wasn’t a player. Jean Dolores Schmidt, known as Sister Jean, is a 99-year-old team chaplain for men’s basketball. She travelled with the Ramblers throughout last spring’s tournament and offered her support.

“We know how special she is and how much she means to our program,” said Bill Behrns, the assistant athletic director of communications. “It was great to let the world know how much she means and everything she brings to the university. She’s a truly special individual with an unbelievable passion for life.”

Sister Jean was on hand to witness the Ramblers’s unbelievable finishes to their first two games in Dallas, Texas. In their round of 64 match-up against sixth-seeded Miami Hurricanes, after Miami missed a free throw with less than 10 seconds left, the Ramblers were still down a point. Instead of going for an easier two-point shot, guard Donte Ingram made a three-point attempt to win the game with no time left.

Clayton Custer (on the ground) watches his game-winning shot go in against the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo by Ralph Braseth / Loyola School of Communication.

Two days later on March 17, 2018, the Ramblers played the third-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. The Ramblers moved on to the next round, the Sweet 16, after Clayton Custer’s shot with three seconds left took a lucky bounce off the rim to fall in.

Schultz and the other staff members of the Loyola Phoenix had to quickly plan to cover the next rounds in Atlanta, Georgia. “It was the first NCAA [National Collegiate Athletics Association] tournament game any of us had ever been to, let alone covered,” Schultz said. “It was a unique experience to be there for that buzz-beater [Ingram’s three-pointer], and that’s when we looked at each other and realized this could be a thing.”

When the Ramblers returned to the university after their upset wins, Behrns saw a different morale amongst the students. “The good thing for us was to see the amount of school spirit and pride people had on campus,” he said. “It was something we had struggled with for a while, so that was fantastic. It was good to see people wear Loyola gear for the first time in a long time.”

The Ramblers went on to beat the Nevada Wolf Pack in the Sweet 16 on March 22, 2018 and the Kansas State Wildcats in the Elite Eight to clinch their spot in the final weekend in San Antonio, Texas. There, they lost to a strong Michigan team, but it was a magical run that will forever live on in the school’s history.

“During the run, what the country saw and what the world saw from our players and staff, that was genuine,” Behrns said. “That’s really how those people are on and off the court; it wasn’t an act or anything that they were putting out there.”

Since last year’s March Madness, Schultz has seen his school’s popularity grow nationwide. He said he’s talked to first-year students, who aren’t necessarily basketball fans, but had heard about the team’s success.

When head coach Porter Moser joined the Ramblers prior to the 2011-12 season, he wanted their home court, Joseph J. Gentile Arena, to be loud every game.

“At that point in time, when he said that, we laughed at him, because they [weren’t] going to sell out and Loyola is not a sports school,” Schultz said. “They just had their sixth sellout of [this] year, and they never had six sellouts in a year. Because of the attention they got in the Final Four, people are coming to games.”

With new recruits coming in, the Final Four appearance will help the Ramblers in the long run. Schultz said Moser is considered a top recruiter, but national exposure motivates high school players to play at Loyola.

“It gets your foot in the door with recruits,” Behrns added. “Now people know who we are; they know our brand and our style of play.”

The Ramblers lost in the semi-final of the MVC championship this past weekend and will not play in this year’s NCAA tournament. But their magic from the 2018 March Madness will live on forever.

Main photo by Hanako Maki / Loyola Phoenix.

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