• Lew Freedman

Sister Jean and the Ramblers

Loyola (Ill.) is a reminder that for most of the 351 schools playing Division I basketball, the NCAA tournament is more about hopes and dreams than being under fan-base pressure to win it all, or to at least reach the Elite Eight so the coach doesn’t get fired.

For the vast majority of schools, the journey of the long season can still be a special time and for the vast majority of players their basketball ride is about appreciating the moment. Their eyes are not on an NBA horizon, but glitter when they qualify for the tournament, never mind suddenly become a national Cinderella.


The last time the Ramblers made noise on the national stage before this year’s road to the Final Four in San Antonio was 1985. Little remembered by a younger generation of fans is 1963, when Loyola, with a team that survived racial discrimination and the tumultuous times of the era, won it all.


In those 55 years, the college basketball landscape has changed so dramatically, except for throwing the ball through the hoop, it is practically not the same sport. As so many things in American society have become, college basketball is more about big bucks, big names, political decisions and bright lights than ever before. Those changes are so pronounced, some might call it a mini-miracle that Loyola was not only in the Big Dance, but was requesting the last dance be saved for the Ramblers.


“It’s pretty ridiculous,” said Carson Shanks, a 7-foot Loyola backup center from Apple Valley, Minn. “If you would have told me six months ago that we were going to be in the Final Four, I wouldn’t say you were lying, but I wouldn’t have put money on it.”


Villanova, Kansas and semi-final conqueror Michigan represented Loyola’s company in San Antonio. The NCAA Tournament starts with 68 teams and follows the path of the Agatha Christie murder-mystery novel And Then There Were None, with the minor modification that there is always one team, this year Villanova, alive at the end.


“It really hit me that we are with blue bloods,” Shanks said. “We are with basketball royalty. It’s just crazy to have our name next to these amazing programs.”


Loyola became the darling of the tournament because it was an underdog winning games on apparently heaven-sent buzzer-beating shots and because of its No. 1 fan, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, whose charming demeanor and basketball chops endeared her to the multitudes. Sister Jean became such a sensation, she eclipsed the fame of The Singing Nun, who in 1963 turned French-lyric Dominique into a pop hit and The Flying Nun TV show starring Sally Field a few years later.


But make no mistake about it, the Ramblers players under coach Porter Moser, did the heavy lifting. Loyola finished its season 32-6 and won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and postseason titles. It was a seasoned team with upperclassmen, yet with too younger players in critical roles.


Moser, 49, had no national profile outside the sport before this tournament run, despite the depth of his background. Moser is from Chicago, where he was a star high-school player and grew up rooting for Chicago sports teams.


In college, he played for Creighton. He was head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock and Illinois State and was an assistant at St. Louis under the late Rick Majerus, whom he considers a mentor. Moser has been at Loyola since 2011. A previous highlight for Loyola in Moser’s fourth season was winning 24 games, including the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament.


When Moser was hired by Loyola, he said he hoped to model the Ramblers after Butler success in the Horizon League under Brad Stevens. Twice, Stevens led the underdog Bulldogs to the national-championship game before departing for the Boston Celtics. For those who considered Moser’s aspiration only optimistic new-job talk, he just lived up to that goal.


The Ramblers were invited into this season’s tournament as a No. 11 seed. Other No. 11s reaching the Final Four were Virginia Commonwealth under Shaka Smart and George Mason under Jim Larranaga. Eventually, those coaches were lured to richer schools in higher-profile conferences that could triple their salaries. Smart is trying to perform the same magic at Texas and Larranaga at Miami.


There is no pasture-is-greener to immediately woo Moser, but if he repeats this kind of success at Loyola – where he is not yet as popular as 98-year-old Sister Jean – there will be suitors waving blank checks. Can he maintain it? That is always a legitimate question when it comes down to teams that fit the description of mid-major.

Three prominent Ramblers are seniors – Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson. But there are key players due back, including Marques Townes, Clayton Custer and Cameron Krutwig. Pre-season predictors will be aware of Loyola going into the 2018-19 season and that’s without whatever recruiting dividends following this magnificent run. The Ramblers will not be ignored.


By beating Miami, 64-62, on an Ingram last-second three-pointer; Tennessee, 63-62, on an off-balance jumper by Custer; holding off Nevada, 69-68; and more easily handling Kansas State, 78-62; Loyola won legions of new fans. So many thousands of the school’s emblematic maroon-and-gold scarves sold, manufacturers could not supply vendors. And the 5,000 Sister Jean bobbleheads rush-produced cannot be delivered until June.


What only a minority of college- basketball followers realize is what type of hoops a team like Loyola (regardless of record) must jump through with an impressive vertical leap just for an invitation. Although the Ramblers won the Valley regular season with a superior record, if they stumbled in the tournament finale they likely would have been snubbed by the NCAA selection committee.


Saint Mary’s finished 30-6 in the West Coast Conference. At one juncture this season, the Gaels were ranked in the top 15. No love from the committee. Middle Tennessee State finished 25-8 in Conference USA. In 2016, some said the Blue Raiders’ win over Michigan State was the biggest upset in tournament history. No chance this season, even with such a history.


If a school plays in the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 or any of a few other leagues, just about all it must do is finish .500 in conference play to be handed an NCAA invite. About two dozen conferences’ schools must channel prayers through Sister Jean for anyone but its automatic qualifier to get into the field.

The constant refrain from the NCAA is to schedule up during the fall, during pre-conference play. However, except for accidental meetings in tournaments, big-name schools are hesitant to play games against lesser-known schools that might be dangerous. They have nothing to gain from playing a team that could beat them rather than scheduling a sure-fire win against a poorer-caliber team that just wants a payday. And scheduling a road game against a 30-win Loyola team? Ha.


During one of the Final Four news conferences, Moser addressed this issue.

“I hope our run sparks some conversation on trying to continue to find the best way (to select teams),” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Moser said he was told if Loyola had lost in the Missouri Valley tournament, the school would not have been invited. Even worse, Moser said, at-large bids have tightened up despite the examples of Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason.


“Those story lines wouldn’t have happened in today’s day and age,” he said, “because they wouldn’t have gotten in. I think that’s an amazing thought.”


Moser said there is an undercurrent in the selection process that the Loyolas are not attempting to schedule extra difficult opponents outside of conference play.

“The one thing that bothers me and bothers a lot of other coaches in the country with the scheduling at our level is they, like, blame us for our schedule,” he said. “Like well, ‘He scheduled really weak.’”


Moser said he wants a tough schedule, but in his office he has a list of 100 phone calls made to schools seeking to schedule a home-and-home series and that were all turn-downs. Moser discussed the topic for several minutes, touching on being rebuffed by the best-known pre-season tournaments, or having famous-brand schools say no.

“The thing that bothers me the most is us getting blamed for not having a tough schedule when we’re trying our tails off,” Moser said.


It was almost humorous when Moser was asked if the FBI investigation into programs accused of having assistant coaches involved with buying players was any distraction for the Ramblers. Uh, no, he said. Essentially, almost until that very moment it was far-fetched to believe shoe companies, agents, or top-ranked high school players across the land, would have uttered Loyola’s name. Religious schools like Loyola competing in mid-major conferences don’t often become embroiled in scandals.


Nor has the one-and-done player been part of Loyola’s life, and when someone asked Moser if the Ramblers were distracted by the goings on in that realm where a hotshot comes out of college, stars for Duke or Kentucky for one freshman season and then flees to the pros, he even laughed out loud.

The backbone of the Loyolas is the comparatively overlooked freshman recruit who might redshirt but stays in the program several years to mature and develop skills, not a player who is on the NBA radar before enrolling. Those instant All-Americans who are here-today, gone-tomorrow, do not choose Loyola coming out of high school.


“No offense, guys,” Moser told his players who were attending the news conference. “Sorry, I love you guys. You guys have been great. It hasn’t been a distraction for us, the one-and-done.”


Loyola is hardly alone in being removed from one-and-done players. Much of the NCAA advertising on television during the tournament contained the message that there are 470,000 athletes on teams throughout the organization and the huge percentage of them will not go pro in any sport, are not going to be drafted to compete in volleyball, softball, gymnastics, tennis or wrestling.


For decades, athletes have made their way through school on scholarship to obtain four-year educations. It is only recently that there have been demands to pay college athletes to play. The movement seems to represent the on-campus, biggest money-makers like basketball and football and it remains very much an unresolved issue. Through a committee called the Commission on College Basketball that was expected to release its findings in April, solutions figure to be proposed to remedy such situations as the payoff scandal the FBI brought to attention, and also perhaps other issues.


NCAA president Mark Emmert does not support paying athletes to play college sports.

“University and colleges have consistently said they don’t want to have student-athletes become employees of a university,” he said. “They don’t want them playing for compensation. They want them to be part of the collegiate experience and they want these young men and these young women to be part of a higher education environment. If they do want to go to college, I think that’s an extraordinary opportunity. The vast, vast majority of our students, that’s exactly what they’re pursuing.”


No players from Loyola at the Final Four were heard clamoring for direct deposit for dribbling. Rather, they spoke of being grateful for the chance to be in San Antonio because it brought honor to the school that helped them so much. Pretty cool, is what Richardson, the senior guard, said of going so far in the NCAAs, while thanking Loyola and its community for giving so much to him.


Richardson said he was happy for the publicity and the attention gained for “such an amazing place” and “we’re proud to represent it.”


Under-the-table payouts, law enforcement investigations, the cheesiness of freshmen taking classes for a single year, represent stains on the game. The underdogs, the Loyolas, the students, Sister Jean, the real one-and-dones (knocked out of the tournament in the first game) refresh fan memories on what they love about March Madness.