Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins preview the Michigan-Loyola-Chicago matchup in the Final Four on Saturday in San Antonio. The Detroit News
A few weeks ago, Loyola-Chicago was just another mid-major basketball program hoping to make the NCAA Tournament.
Now, after four victories — three coming in the final seconds — the Ramblers are the talk of college basketball. They’re just the fourth 11-seed to reach the Final Four and they’d become the first to reach the national championship game if they were to knock off Michigan on Saturday.
Instead of getting caught up in all of what the next few days has in store, however, coach Porter Moser is doing his best to keep the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference focused on the task at hand. That means simply winning the next game, not trying to make history.
“Like anything, we’re not thinking about breaking the string,” Moser said. “I’m not thinking about anything really in terms of that, except Michigan, and what are we going to do to score because their defense is one of the top defenses in the country. And their offense — both ends of the court, they’re outstanding.
“The process of what our mindset and focus has been has been on Michigan, not the other 11 seeds or whether they’ve gotten to the next game or not.”
Loyola-Chicago (32-5) has done just fine eliminating the outside noise. It was easy before the tournament started as few were talking about the Ramblers. But after a last-second win over Miami (Fla.) followed by another nail-biter over Tennessee, the attention was ramped up significantly.
The run of excitement continued with a one-point win over Nevada in the Sweet 16 before they blew out Kansas State in the regional final.
With that run of success has come plenty of attention, but Moser hopes the Ramblers continue to block it all out for the next week.
“Sometime later on we’ll talk about the history of everything,” Moser said, “but right now these guys, our coaching staff, everything is about the opponent in front of us, and that’s all we’ve got to focus on. Nothing else really matters. The only thing that really matters is the two hours we’re playing Michigan, executing, what are we going to do to score, what are we going to do to stop them.”
If fond memories have anything to do with success at the Final Four, then Kansas has plenty to fall back on as it prepares to take on Villanova in Saturday’s second semifinal.
The last time the Jayhawks won the national championship it was at the Alamodome in 2008 when they beat Memphis in overtime. It was one of the tournament’s most exciting title games as Kansas erased a nine-point deficit in the final 2:12 and forced overtime when Mario Chalmers nailed a 3-pointer with just seconds to play. Kansas scored the first six points of overtime to pull away for coach Bill Self’s first national title.
“There’s a lot of fond memories, without question, and certainly walking off the court with my son with the net around his back, that’s something that, you know, sticks out to me,” Self said. “Those sorts of things. But just winning it. All coaches agree, I think, that the wins never feel as good as the losses feel bad, but winning that one game certainly feels probably better than all the losses added up feels bad. It’s a pretty special feeling.”
Those memories were far better than those from 2011. As the top seed in the Southwest Region, Kansas lost to No. 11 VCU in the regional final at the Alamodome.
“That’s obviously a game in which you’ll be favored to win,” Self said, “but with that VCU team, I know you remember it well, but that team at that moment was every bit as good as a 1 or 2 seed was.”
One step at a time
Don’t expect anything to knock Villanova off its game this week. The Wildcats have been determined to get to this point all season after last year’s disappointing loss to Wisconsin in the second round.
But plenty of experience remains from the team that won it all in 2016. Five current players — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall — were on that roster and they won’t get caught up in people saying their game with Kansas is the de facto national championship game.
“The good thing is I think our guys have a good understanding and respect for everybody in this tournament, so I don’t think they would even think that this is the national championship game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Our guys wouldn’t think that way.”