INDIANAPOLIS — OK, Loyola-Chicago. Time to put your money where the muttering has been.
The Ramblers will get the chance to prove they were under-seeded, and maybe a bit disrespected, with a second-round matchup Sunday against in-state neighbor and No. 1 seed Illinois. Loyola held off a surprisingly resilient Georgia Tech, which was playing without ACC player of the year Moses Wright, 71-60 in the first round.
Loyola has won seven in a row, and 18 of its last 19, and was puzzled when it found itself as an eighth seed, pitted against arguably the hottest team coming into the tournament in the second round. A state rival, at that – if you can call a small, Catholic, mid-major and a Power-5 flagship state university rivals, that is.
Even Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola’s 101-year-old team chaplain and America’s favorite nun, threw shade at the Selection Committee earlier this week, saying “nobody thinks it’s a fair bracket.”
But that’s life as a mid-major. You’ll get no favors in the NCAA men’s tournament, and your only choices are to sulk or show up the supposed experts.
Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser asked if he’ll use the idea that the Ramblers were under-seeded as motivation with his team. “I have 48 hours to fan that flame,” Moser said. “And I’m gonna. That flame will be fanned.”
Loyola would prefer the show up option – even if coach Porter Moser did acknowledge Wednesday that he wasn’t above using Loyola’s seeding as bulletin board material, at least ahead of the first-round game with Georgia Tech.
“I have 48 hours to fan that flame," Moser said then. "And I'm gonna. That flame will be fanned."
The Ramblers will need far more than motivational tactics against Illinois, which, if it has a weakness right now, it’s nearly impossible to see. The Illini breezed past 16th-seeded Drexel earlier Friday, with four players in double figures, including Ayo Dosunmu with a double-double.
“I have an amazing amount of respect for how good they are. They’re terrific,” Moser said. “They play hard, they play both ends, they’re extremely well-coached. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
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Ramblers guard Lucas Williamson and center Cameron Krutwig are the only players left from Loyola-Chicago's 2018 Final Four team. (Photo: Marc Lebryk, USA TODAY Sports)
Loyola knows as well as anyone that no team is unbeatable in the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers, after all, reached the Final Four as an 11th seed in 2018, knocking off third-seeded Tennessee in the second round. Only two players with measurable playing time – Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig – are left from that squad, and the postseason is a new experience for everybody else.
Which might explain why Loyola got off to such a rocky start against Georgia Tech, falling behind by double figures a little over six minutes in.
The beauty of that 2018 team was that Donte Ingram, Marques Townes and Clayton Custer weren’t just Loyola’s best players, they were its loudest, too. Constantly chirping and talking themselves and their teammates up. That lesson rubbed off on Williamson, who could be seen telling his teammates to settle down and enjoy the moment.
“We were a little shaky, so I knew I wanted to step up as a leader and give my team confidence,” Williamson said. “That’s what I wanted to do early, and I just rolled a hot hand the rest of the game.”
Sure enough, rather than trying to force things, Loyola locked in on defense and let the offense right itself. Williamson had 11 in the first half, and 10 more in the second to lead four Ramblers in double figures. He also led Loyola with six rebounds.
“When you’re vocal and you’re backing it up with your effort, it equals (a) lot of confidence in yourself and the other guys,” Moser said.
And that is what ought to concern Illinois, and everyone else still playing. The Ramblers don’t see themselves as underdogs. They know they have the game to play with anyone – you could conduct clinics around their passes, and you could watch games all day and not see anyone with a sweeter stroke than Williamson or Braden Norris – and they’re not afraid to get down and dirty, either. Without Wright, Moser impressed the importance of the offensive glass, and Loyola responded with 17 offensive rebounds – matching Georgia Tech’s rebounding total – and 15 second-chance points.
Would Loyola rather be playing somebody less imposing Sunday? Sure. But nobody gets a run of gimmes in the NCAA tournament. You’re going to come up against the best at some point, be it Sunday or two weeks from now.
“I’m just trying to survive and advance,” Williamson said. “Illinois is going to be a tough matchup for us, we know they’re one of the best in the country. I’m just focused on whoever is in front of me and it just happens to be Illinois.”
Three years ago, Loyola busted almost everybody's brackets on the way to the Final Four. Well, here's the Ramblers chance to do it again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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