CHICAGO (AP) — The NCAA Tournament begins this week and Loyola Chicago once again has its sights set on a deep run.
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt plans to be along for the ride, of course. But this time, maybe, the Ramblers can leave the glass slippers at home.
“I like to say that we’re no longer Cinderella,” star guard Lucas Williamson said. “I’d like to say that we’re one of the other people that were invited to the dance. And we’re here to stay.”
Loyola is headed to the tournament for the second year in a row and the third time in five years.
The program that captured the country’s imagination with a stunning Final Four run in 2018 and made another big push last year, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, is back again. The Ramblers are 25-7, seeded 10th in the South region and have a date with seventh-seeded Ohio State in Pittsburgh on Friday.
“I’ve talked a lot to our team this year about how we’re in control of what we can accomplish,” said coach Drew Valentine, in his first season. “I think that group, they really feel like they’re in control of their own destiny.”
Sister Jean plans to be there, just as she was for the Final Four march that turned the team chaplain into a celebrity.
The beloved nun was there last year in Indianapolis when her Ramblers made another big run. Loyola beat Georgia Tech at Hinkle Fieldhouse and knocked out Illinois, dominating the No. 1 seed from downstate, before losing to Oregon State.
Now 102, Sister Jean was in St. Louis this month when Loyola won the Missouri Valley Tournament for the third and final time before leaving for the Atlantic 10, erasing any questions about an at-large bid to the NCAA. And she was there Sunday in Gentile Arena, in a wheelchair next to a stage where the team watched the selection show, taking notes as the field was announced.
Players and coaches jumped out of their seats and cheered when Loyola was called. Sister Jean grinned ear to ear.
“I’m just so excited,” she said. “Ohio State? We’ll take ‘em. We’ll work on ’em. ... I believe our young men will do it.”
The only other time Loyola made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments was in 1963 and 1964. The Ramblers kicked down racial doors in their first appearance, with four black starters leading them to the only championship for an Illinois school, and they lost in the regional semifinals the following year.
Loyola also made the tournament in 1966 and 1968 before a long dry spell, with just one appearance in 1985 prior to the Final Four run.
Now, the Ramblers have five straight seasons with 20 wins or more. Former coach Porter Moser led them to national prominence before leaving for Oklahoma, and the program continues to roll along under Valentine, in his first head coaching job after four years as an assistant at Loyola.
“Older guys that have been here, I’ve worked with them and I’ve coached them and I’ve been on them and we’ve built a great relationship,” Valentine said. “I think those older guys have belief and trust in me and belief and trust in this place, obviously, because they could have left. It gives validation, like, this program is in good hands.”
Valentine had a role in Loyola’s emergence while working for Moser. He also spent time as an assistant under Tom Izzo at Michigan State and at Oakland, where he played.
The Ramblers made a brief appearance in the AP Top 25 at No. 22 in January. They stumbled a bit down the regular-season stretch and steadied themselves in the conference tournament, beating Bradley, Northern Iowa and Drake.
But overall, the transition from Moser to Valentine has been a smooth one. And that’s no surprise to Williamson. He called the 30-year-old Valentine “one of the best coaches in the country” and a “rising star in his profession.”
Williamson, a Chicago product who opted to return for a fifth season, is tight with his coach. They arrived at Loyola the same year and developed a “brotherhood.”
“He can talk to me and I can talk to him,” Williamson said. “We just have built-in relationships. No matter what he says to me, how he says it, if his emotions might be getting a little high — but I know he loves me. At the end of the day, he wants what’s best for me.”
The only remaining Rambler who played in the Final Four season is Williamson. But Loyola got a big taste of the tournament a year ago. And the Ramblers are counting on that experience to help propel them this time.
Guard Braden Norris, who grew up near Columbus in Hilliard, Ohio, was looking forward to the chance to knock out his hometown team.
“We’re a super confident group,” he said. “The way we played in ‘Arch Madness,’ we’re starting to gain momentum. ... We’re gonna be playing with a bunch of confidence.”