It was supposed to cripple the league – and maybe it still will in the long-term – but it also gave birth to an idea. It created space to dream and imagine. There simply was reason to hope.
Wichita State’s decision to leave the Missouri Valley Conference for the AAC robbed the league of its marquee program and, the thinking went, its national relevance. With the conference’s dominant force suddenly gone, though, there was a question that suddenly became pertinent. Once perhaps delusional, it was not essential.
“It’s this huge overwhelming wave of optimism,” Loyola coach Porter Moser told NBC Sports in January. “I think every single program is asking, ‘Why not us?’”
Two months later, the Ramblers are still asking that question, but for a different audience. Once, they just asked it of themselves. Then of the conference. Now, of the country.
The Ramblers’ run through March continued Thursday as they won a spot in the Elite Eight by toppling No. 7 Nevada in the South Region semifinals, 69-68, in Atlanta to be just 40 minutes shy of a Final Four that last hosted Loyola in 1963.
Fifty-five years later, it’s now fair to ask, why not these Ramblers?
Loyola and its magnetic, lovable and charming sensation of a team chaplain, Sister Jean, haven’t come up with an answer to that question yet. There has been no reason it can’t be Loyola through an entire MVC season, Arch Madness and three NCAA tournament opponents.
There are no lottery picks on the floor. Moser is in his second stint in the Valley after being fired from Illinois State in 2007. They don’t play with much flash or even speed.
Loyola, though, makes it work.
All the Ramblers have done this season is win. They won in Gainesville against Florida. They won 15 MVC games and the league title with a four-game cushion. They skated through the conference tournament. Buzzer-beaters got them by Miami and Tennessee in the first weekend. In the Sweet 16, they didn’t spare a fellow Cinderella, instead dispatching Nevada with lethal offensive efficiency.
Nevada looked like it may overwhelm Loyola early as it built a 12-point lead less than seven minutes into the game. The Ramblers, though, struck back by keeping the Wolf Pack off the board for nearly the last 8 minutes of the first half to take a four-point lead into the break.
The strong play considered on the other side of halftime for Loyola, which astonishingly made its first 13 shots of the second half. Still, despite the perfect start, the Ramblers only briefly took a double-digit lead before Nevada sliced it back down below 10.
Loyola’s inability to build a substantial lead came back to bite it as Nevada, the comeback kids of this tournament, mounted its attack on the deficit and had it erased before the under-four timeout, setting up the final frantic minutes of a battle.
With a one-point lead and less than 10 seconds on the clock, Loyola got a 3-pointer from Marques Townes to seal victory. The Ramblers shot 75 percent from the floor in the second half, but still needed a clutch shot. And they got it.
Nevada Caleb Martin scored 21 points and Jordan Caroline added 19. They spearheaded a Wolf Pack offense that looked like its speed and athleticism just might be too much for Loyola. There were times when the Ramblers just looked overmatched. But there were more times when they just out-executed Nevada anyway.
Loyola is in the Elite Eight. The question persists.
Why not Loyola?