If only one team from Illinois, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, were to make the NCAA Tournament in a state that has 13 division one schools, one that does not follow college basketball on a consistent basis might view that as crazy. However, the way things are shaping out this year, that appears to be what is going to happen.
After considering where some of Illinois’ top basketball programs are right now, Loyola-Chicago being the only team from the state to make the NCAA Tournament does not seem so crazy after all.
There are three schools in major conferences in the state of Illinois. They are the Illinois Fighting Illini, the DePaul Blue Demons, and the Northwestern Wildcats. Illinois and Northwestern are both a part of the Big Ten Conference whereas DePaul resides in the Big East.
Illinois and DePaul are both proud programs that are currently trying to rebuild in hopes of attracting elite level players in the future. Northwestern is coming off of their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance last year in what was a surprisingly good season for them. This year, however, they are underachieving in the eyes of many after beginning the season ranked 19th in the preseason Associated Press poll.
Even though they are currently 15-11 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten, being on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament was not what was expected of a team returning a handful of players from last year. Although last year was a very successful one for Northwestern, I believe that in his fifth-year head coach Chris Collins is still trying to make his mark on the program by having them play consistent basketball.
As for Loyola-Chicago basketball, if you do not follow them then you would not believe the success they are having this year. Now in his seventh season leading the Ramblers, head coach Porter Moser currently has his team sitting first in the Missouri Valley Conference standings with an 11-3 record in conference play and an overall record of 21-5.
While their strength of schedule is not on par with that of other teams in power conferences with similar records, they did go on the road and at the time beat the fifth-ranked Florida Gators 65-59. Although Northern Iowa and Valparaiso are having down years, both having records of 12-14 overall, they both have had recent success in making and being competitive in NCAA Tournament games.
Going 21-5 in their first 26 games is hard no matter what conference they’re in. Their record is an indication that they play hard every night and take no team for granted.
While it wasn’t expected in the preseason that the Ramblers would have as much success as they are currently having, they were still a respected team in the Missouri Valley Conference. In a preseason poll, I found on mvc-sports.com, Loyola-Chicago was picked to finish third in the MVC behind first-place Missouri State and second place Northern Iowa.
Of the 40 first-place votes, Missouri State was given 30, UNI eight, and Loyola-Chicago and Illinois State each received one. Missouri State appeared to be the heavy favorite to win the conference behind pre-season MVC Player of the Year Alize Johnson.
Rambler seniors Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson, who were both elected to the MVC preseason first team, had other ideas. As the only Ramblers appearing on either the first or second preseason all-conference team, they have been all around players who have been key to the team’s success.
Ingram is averaging 11.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game at the guard spot. On the other hand, Jackson is averaging 11.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game while playing the forward position.
With only four conference games remaining on the schedule for the Ramblers and having won ten of their last eleven games as well as holding a two and a half-game lead in the standings over second-place Southern Illinois, I expect Loyola-Chicago to win the regular season conference championship.
Of the four games left in the regular season, the Ramblers face two teams in the bottom half of the conference standings when they travel to Evansville to face the Purple Aces and have a home tilt with the Valparaiso Crusaders.
The other two games, however, are a bit more challenging, as both of the teams the Ramblers face are tied for second place in the standings. Loyola-Chicago travels to Southern Illinois to collide with the Salukis before heading home to close out the regular season against the Illinois State Redbirds.
In a men’s basketball season preview posted on the Loyola Ramblers YouTube channel, when talking about his team this year head coach Porter Moser said, “I’m excited because of what they put in the time and effort that they’ve invested this summer has been one of the best we’ve been around and here at Loyola.”
It that interview, it was apparent that Moser thought that the team was special because of their work ethic. He also mentioned that there was great team chemistry when he stated, “We’re a very connected group very close group.”
In my opinion, the combination of having the willingness to put in the work to be great as well as being connected as a team usually leads to success on the floor.
Although it may be a down year for the rest of the state of Illinois in terms of where their basketball programs are now compared to where they want to be in the future, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers have to be loving the way their season has gone thus far.
With Selection Sunday nearing and the Ramblers showing no signs of slowing down, expect them to secure a bid in the Big Dance for the first time since the 1984-85 season.