Sorry, Michigan fans, but from this point, you’re on your own.
At least, you’re on your own for your next game. That, of course, comes next Saturday at the Final Four as the Wolverines advanced by capturing the West Regional championship on Saturday in Los Angeles with a victory over Florida State.
But in order to get a shot at the program’s first national championship since 1989, the Wolverines will have to knock off the tournament darlings – Loyola-Chicago.
It’s not enough that the Ramblers are the prototypical Cinderella of this season’s NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four as an 11-seed and winning close game after close game. Their biggest fan has also become the star of March.
OK, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt also happens to be the team chaplain – a role she’s filled since 1994 – but she qualifies as the team’s biggest fan and has quickly become one of the most popular people in the nation as media outlets clamor for the latest interview. You can even order a Sister Jean bobblehead.
We are all, officially, caught up in Sister Jean mania.
So, yeah, everyone not wearing maize and blue will be pulling for Loyola on Saturday night at the Alamodome.
But who are the Ramblers? We thought we’d let you know a little about the school and the team as the wait begins for the matchup in the national semifinals.
Loyola’s 1963 title
When you think college basketball powerhouses you don’t think about Loyola-Chicago. The school of roughly 16,000 based on Chicago’s north side is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 1985.
“Before the tournament I wouldn’t call our school a basketball school,” freshman center Cameron Krutweg told SB Nation. “Throughout the run, when we beat Miami, people started to blow up around the campus and stuff like that. It’s been truly amazing to see all these people around campus. The places where you walk every day just flooded with students, flooded with alumni, and things like that, and just cheering for you because you’re playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
However, there is plenty of history with the Ramblers. They won the national title in 1963, the same season they played Mississippi State for the Mideast Regional semifinal at Jenison Field House on the campus of Michigan State. That meeting was dubbed “The Game of Change” as Mississippi State had to essentially sneak out of the state to play Loyola, which started four African-American players that season, and faced pressure of discrimination and racism during their championship run. The Ramblers won the game, 61-51, then beat Illinois, Duke and Cincinnati for their only national title.
‘Why not us?’
A little more than five years ago, Porter Moser stood inside the Breslin Center after a closer-than-expected loss to Michigan State and talked about what he was trying to build at Loyola-Chicago. He saw it that night in East Lansing, and getting the Ramblers even close to that was his long-term goal.
“They have culture of how hard you play, how hard you compete, and you expect to win for 40 minutes,” Moser said. “You see everything is about culture and that's what I'm trying to establish here.”
It hasn’t come easily, but the culture of playing hard for 40 minutes has clearly been established by Moser, now in his seventh season at Loyola.
A disciple of the late Rick Majerus, Moser has put it all together with the Ramblers. He had some uninspiring stints at Arkansas-Little Rock and Illinois State before becoming an assistant to Majerus at St. Louis. In 2011, he took over at Loyola and has slowly built a program of players that believe they can win.
“All summer long, we were like, why not us?” Moser said. “This is not something where it just started. These guys have been investing for a long time on how hard they worked, how hard they believed, and we've kind of had this mantra about the process.
“Why not us? You have to have high-character guys that believe to truly do that.”
Their best shot
The Ramblers rolled to the Missouri Valley Conference championship and have ignited their magnificent NCAA Tournament run with a roster short on stars but full of athletic balance.
Five players score in double figures for a team that is shooting better than 50 percent this season and puts an emphasis on making the extra pass in an effort to get the best shot available. They won’t beat you with size, but by shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, the Ramblers extend the defense.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a go-to guy. That would have to be junior Clayton Custer, the conference player of the year who hit the game-winner to beat Tennessee back in the second round and is averaging 13.2 points and 4.2 assists a game. He also happens to be just one of the guys – kind of. Before Loyola’s regional final game against Kansas State, some fans didn’t even realize he was on the team.
“We were getting on the elevator after shootaround, and somebody in the hotel, I think it was like a high school kid or something, was asking for a picture with the team, and they said, ‘Hey, can you take this, Mister,’ and they gave the phone to Clay,” teammate Ben Richardson said. “He was going to take it, too. He was polite, he was going to take it. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’
“It just shows that it doesn't matter. It's a cliché. Coach always says it, but it doesn't matter the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog, and Clay has proven – he doesn't care. And he's proven that he belongs on this stage, and he's the best point guard, in my mind, in this tournament.”
Upset for the ages?
The Ramblers have already done a good job of putting their name back on the college basketball map, playing in the NCAA Tournament for just the sixth time and now in their second Final Four.
The question is, can this season’s Cinderella go farther than most? Only three other 11-seeds have reached the Final Four and those three all lost in the national semifinals. LSU lost to eventual national champion Louisville in 1986, George Mason lost in 2006 to Florida, which also won the national title, and VCU lost to Butler in 2011.
The lowest seed to ever win the national championship? That was No. 8 Villanova, which beat Georgetown in 1985.
The matchup with Michigan is the second 3-seed vs. 11-seed in the Final Four. The last was 2006 when Florida beat George Mason. However, Loyola-Chicago already has a 3-11 victory, beating third-seeded Tennessee back in the second round.
Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago
Tip-off: Saturday, 6:09 p.m., Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5
Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.