Loyola of Chicago returns to dance after drought

CHICAGO — As the players walked into the video room at the end of a grueling boot camp last fall, Loyola of Chicago coach Porter Moser made sure “One Shining Moment” was playing.

He wanted his team to hear that anthem of the NCAA, to see what the payoff could be for their sweat, their aches, their pains. And he wanted his players to believe the idea of a tournament run was anything but madness.

Well, here they are.

The 11th seed in the South Regional, the Ramblers are set to face Miami in Dallas on Thursday. They already knew they were headed to the NCAA after winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Even so, it was a surreal moment for them on Sunday, one 33 years in the making since a Sweet 16 run in 1985.

“Daydreaming is one thing,” Moser said. “But having a vision and really getting after it and working toward it is another. This wasn’t daydreaming. This was a group of people with a vision and working unbelievably hard to get there.”

It was a vision Moser had when he got hired in 2011. But it was a long road back to the NCAA for Loyola, a Jesuit school of about 16,000 with a championship in 1963 that is a benchmark for civil rights.

“It means the world to us,” said athletic director Steve Watson, who played for Miami coach Jim Larranaga at Bowling Green. “But maybe what’s the coolest thing seeing the way our guys talk about the former players and the connection they’ve made with the ’63 team and the ’85 team. That’s been real special.”

The years after Patrick Ewing and Georgetown knocked out the Ramblers in 1985 weren’t easy.

There was a string of 14 seasons without a winning record that ended in 2002. The first three years under Moser — who grew up near Chicago in Naperville, Ill. — produced seven, 15 and 10 wins before the Ramblers won the 2015 College Basketball Invitational.

They come into the NCAA with a 28-5 record and a weight off their shoulders after making the tournament for the first time in more than three decades. As Chicago sports droughts go, that’s actually rather short by comparison.

Northwestern — just a few miles north along the lakefront — hosted the inaugural Final Four in 1939 but didn’t reach the NCAA until last season. As for Loyola’s gap between appearances, it’s nowhere near the longest, all-time or active.

Harvard earned its first trip in 66 years in 2012. And with no bids since 1959, Dartmouth is closing in on its Ivy League rival.

Yale made it for the first time in 54 years in 2016.

Tennessee Tech (1963), Bowling Green (1968), Columbia (1968), Seattle (1969), Rice (1970), Duquesne (1977), Virginia Military Institute (1977) and Toledo (1980) are all on the clock. Marist (1987) isn’t far behind Loyola, but at least Marshall won’t have to worry about catching the Ramblers let alone the Crimson. The Thundering Herd clinched their first appearance in 31 years by winning Conference USA and will play Wichita State on Thursday.

Loyola is getting a moment in a city where it’s often overshadowed.

“It’s more like an excitement that we brought the buzz back surrounding Loyola basketball,” guard Clayton Custer said. “I wouldn’t say it feels like a burden’s been lifted, but it’s more just we feel like we’ve brought something back that’s been missing here at the university. Hopefully, we’re making Loyola alums proud.”