It was just a simple home-made little placard. But in Atlanta’s Philips Arena, it said it all:
“Loyola is better than [insert your team name here].’’
Yes, the Ramblers proved that again. The 11th-seeded lads in maroon-and-gold from Chicago’s Far North Side turned back Nevada 69-68 on Thursday night to advance to the Elite Eight.
No. 6 Miami? Gone, 64-62. No. 3 Tennessee? Gone, 63-62. No. 7 Wolfpack? Gone, 69-68.
Even Sister Jean didn’t have the Ramblers going this far in her bracket.
But here they are, set up for a date with Kansas State, the No. 9 seed in the South Region, at 5:09 p.m. on Saturday.
And the winner will be in the Final Four.
Not bad for a team that hasn’t even been in the NCAA tournament since 1985.
The Ramblers are the first team from Illinois to advance this far since Illinois lost to North Carolina in the 2005 championship game.
Those Illini, interestingly, were coached by Bruce Weber, who’s now guiding K-State.
In other words, if this is Ascension for the surprising Ramblers, it is a bit of Redemption for Weber, who was fired by Illinois.
I’m happy for Bruce. He’s as solid as they come, an earnest Milwaukee native who worked for Gene Keady. Toward the end of his last season at Illinois, when I was at home recovering from prostate-cancer surgery, Bruce, who’s a huge Coaches vs. Cancer guy, would text me good wishes. I will never forget that.
I did not disagree with his dismissal at Illinois; the results weren’t there. But the tears on the faces of his wife and daughters the day he left Champaign is also something I will never forget.
And now, it’s neat to see how he has gotten back on the horse at K-State, which was picked eighth in the Big 12 and now is in the Elite Eight. He was a good coach at Illinois, but was undone by some recruiting tangles. He’s a better coach now.
Oh, and let’s just get this out of the way now. . .
The best line of Thursday night came, of course, from Charles Barkley, when asked for his pick in the Kentucky-Kansas State game.
Both teams, of course, are the Wildcats. But Sir Charles looked surprised when people didn’t understand that he was talking about The Wildcats from Kentucky.
If anybody else said that, they’d be considered less than knowledgable. When Sir Charles says it, it’s more than hysterical.
This ought to be a very fun matchup on Saturday, No. 11 Loyola vs. No. 9 Kansas State for a berth in the Final Four.
I’m guessing a lot of people will be picking Destiny’s Darlings. (The Vegas line I saw has the game as a pick ’em.) The Ramblers play as bodaciously as coach Porter Moser’s Plaid-Paisley-Bring-It wardrobes. And like Moser’s fashion choices, the Ramblers always seem to click.
What’s your favorite thing about Loyola? The way they play together? The way they play defense? The way they make the extra pass? The way they don’t panic?
Just give me: All of the Above.
The Ramblers came out over-caffeinated against Nevada, and got down by 12 points early. They regrouped.
Loyola then went up by 12 points in the second half and gave that all away against the Wolfpack, a team that already had surmounted two double-digit deficits in the first two rounds.
Once again, the Ramblers righted themselves.
Come to think of it, this might be favorite thing about Loyola: The way they have opponents looking around, trying to figure out where they are.
Or course, there will be plenty of talk about the Ramblers being Cinderella. And considering where they were on Halloween, they are.
Two other 11-seeds have reached the Final Four: George Mason in 2006, and VCU in 2011.
But the Ramblers aren’t wide-eyed. You know that if you’ve watched them play. And they didn’t come completely out of nowhere.
They won at Florida in December. And they are a perfect 13-0 in February and March.
Loyola has won its three NCAA games by four points. That’s not only March Madness. It’s a pattern.
I’m not saying I expect to see Sister Jean checking out the Alamo next weekend.
But I’m guessing that Ramblers followers hope Sir Charles is still picking “the Wildcats.’’