Ramble On… To Sing My Song… I Guess I’ll Keep on Ramblin’… Ode To The Underdog

This blog post is dedicated to my buddy Nate, whose daughter Molly was smart enough and gracious enough (or perhaps too scared to incur future dad and his crazy friends’ wrath?) to wait to be born until AFTER the first two rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament… just 2 days ago.

Congratulations Nate & Mel… and thank you Molly!

This guy looks ready to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood. For sure.

THE LOYOLA PAPER TIGERS? …  Dec 6, 2017: LOY 65, FLA 59.

It was a love affair that started with a sprained ankle. 

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a big college basketball fan (Men’s far more than Women’s, though I do like the Women’s game too — UCONN is just so dominant though, I don’t really follow it until the Final Four.) I’ve always been a college hoops fan. My mom went into labor while my dad was coaching a basketball game.

I often tell people I was raised in the Church of Basketball. I love the game.

Every year, I have a routine when it comes to getting familiar with the teams that might eventually play in the NCAA Tourney. I pretty much avoid everything until league play is halfway over (around Feb 1 or so?) though I do try to check out:

1. the most intriguing early season tournament matchups of major programs on neutral courts (ie. Duke v Texas was a great one this year… normally those two teams would not face each other unless it was the NCAA Tourney.) Seeing this kind of matchup is like watching the preview of a Tourney game, and can provide insights into what might happen in March… 

AND

2. I try to see well regarded Mid-Major schools play road games against Major program schools. Not because I think they’ll win (extremely rare) but because I want to see whether or not they can hang with the talent of a Major.

This knowledge is important if you’re going to have a good March Madness bracket; it’s absolutely mandatory if you’re going to be placing wagers on the early rounds of March Madness, which, I had a feeling, I would be doing this year.

Yes, there are data, there are the analytics, there are the people who swear up and down that the numbers will give you the best predictive model – but if you haven’t applied the “eye test” to a team, you’re really flying blind with a bunch of numbers in your face. The eye test can often tell you more in given scenarios than data. It can tell you what a team is made of, and what their ceiling might be.

Such as when I saw that the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers were playing University of Florida (Ranked #5 in the country) on the road in December.

The irony is that it was the data that initially drew me to Loyola – I was looking at the early stats for teams on the NCAA website, and this one team, Loyola, was a very impressive team on the stat sheet. As a team, they shot 50% from the floor and 40% from 3 (that is Steph Curry-level proficiency) and all of their starters averaged over 10 PPG. Unusual balance. Surely the numbers were inflated due to weak competition though. That had to be the case. Still, I decided to watch them play Florida to see just how much of a paper tiger this 9-1 Loyola team was. (Their starting off-guard and best defender, Ben Richardson, was hurt, he’d broken his hand in the game previous…’too much to overcome,’ I thought, ‘if Loyola can lose by less than 10, I’ll check them out again later in the year.’)

I was so impressed and surprised by what I watched. 

Right from the get go, Loyola was not intimidated; not by the hostile crowd, or the “Florida” on the opposing jersey, or the apparent size / athleticism disadvantage, or even that outlandish cartoon alligator that Florida has at half-court. They jumped out and attacked Florida right away. Chris Chiozza, Florida’s point guard and one of the quickest players in all of college basketball was getting repeatedly burned on dribble penetration by Loyola’s point guard, a guy named Clayton Custer, who I’d never heard of. He looked a little bit like John Stockton and had handles like Stockton as well. Loyola’s big man, Cameron Krutwig, displayed perfect fundamental low post footwork, head fakes, pump fakes. He was reminiscent of Kevin McHale or former Gator David Lee. Loyola’s other big man, Aundre Jackson, a 6’5″ undersized big, kind of had a Corliss Williamson / Antawn Jamison thing about him: he played bigger than he was. And, just as this team seemed to be coasting into halftime with a double-digit lead against the #5 ranked team in the country, on the road, the unthinkable happened: Custer turned his ankle badly. It looked terrible, like he might’ve broken it. Custer was helped off the court. I thought: “Poor guys. Their starting backcourt is gone. They could’ve won this game. Their season is probably toast. And they’d have been fun to see in the Tourney. Oh well.”

From that point, Loyola put together the best defensive half of basketball I’ve seen this season. Defense is all about effort and communication, and no one out-hustles or communicates better than Loyola. Chiozza couldn’t break them down, the wings couldn’t get open jumpers or drive into the lane…I’d have to watch the game tape again, but I don’t think Florida got more than 2 uncontested shots the rest of the game. Loyola’s bigs consistently were hitting open shots… and down the stretch, the team made free throws and played to win. When the final buzzer sounded, I believed I’d seen the guttiest performance I’d seen in at least 10 years. I was a fan. I’d watch them as much as I could for the rest of the season. 

Aundre Jackson shot 10-12 from the field, 3-3 from three-point land, the Ramblers beat #5 Florida on the road, and made a fan out of me.

THE WINDY CITY TEAM FEELS THE CHILL OF WINTER…Dec 16, 2017 through Jan 3, 2017: L’S to WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE, MISSOURI ST. & INDIANA ST.

It was tough to watch. Not literally, thanks to ESPN 3, which apparently will broadcast even the most obscure of college basketball teams. It was painful because I knew this team could be more than it was showing. 

The effort was there, the defense was there, but the scoring was hard to come by. The starting 2 guard Ben Richardson returned during this stretch, but without Custer, their primary ball handler, distributor and possibly best shooter, the flow of the team’s offense seemed out of sorts.

Donte Ingram tried to pick up the slack but the shooting was cold as winter.

The encouraging sign was that the team’s effort didn’t suffer. I might have seen one player pout or sulk a little bit, but that player was a reserve who’d likely be banished to the bench once the team was healthy. Still I had to wonder, was this team’s unbelievable gift for selflessly sharing the ball and canning open 3’s and layups in that game against Florida just a mirage? Was there anything actually special about this team, or had my eyes deceived me?

Sustaining effort even when things aren’t going your way is a sign of character – but character, as important as it is, without talent, usually doesn’t go a long way. At least for a college basketball team. They’d sustained their level of effort. But it didn’t much matter.

Without Custer, this just wasn’t the same team. It seemed pointless to watch them again until winter let up, and so I waited for the general…

Without their floor general Custer, the Ramblers looked lost despite their best efforts.

RAMBA-LERRRRS… COME OUT TO PLAYEEYAYYY… RAMBA-LERRRS… COME OUT TO PLAYEEYAAAAAAYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Jan 28, 2018: LOY 70, UNI 47

Custer had already been back for a few games when I browsed the NCAA team and individual statistics: there they were again, sitting at 50% from the field, 40% from 3, and five guys in double figures.

They’d be playing University of Northern Iowa, a team with three starters leftover from a team with the dubious distinction of experiencing the most epic final minute meltdown…OF ALL TIME… in an NCAA tournament game two years previous, losing to Texas A&M in the 2nd round, when, with 35 seconds left and a 12 point lead…seriously, you read that right…UNI somehow found a way to let Texas A&M (the video is on YouTube: it is just brutal) tie them, then eventually beat them in double overtime. A&M’s chances to win that game were less than one-ten-thousandth of one percent. (A true one-in-a-million event.)

UNI had talent though, and seniors that, if they wanted to atone for that debacle, were going to need to start playing well to make a run at the Missouri Valley Conference title that Loyola looked to be ready to grab. UNI played very good defense and had a slowdown style that might give Loyola trouble.

The first half was kind of a rock fight, Loyola led 26-19, the defenses were stifling. And then, in the second half, I saw Loyola play like a BRILLIANT basketball team.

The announcers cooed that Custer and Richardson had played together since 3rd grade. They went on to say that 6 of these players had won state championships. And I was just in awe as they dissected a very good defensive team with a series of backdoor cuts, perfect spacing, and the weave offense, one of my dad’s favorites and one of mine as well, because that offense, when run correctly, is like the crane technique in Karate Kid… no can defense, Danielsan…  you have five guys that can equally hurt you in a variety of ways with the slightest defensive mistake (just ask Kansas State what they think of Loyola’s offense compared to, say, a team like Kentucky.) They scored 44 points in that second half and Custer was incredible. No look passes. Wide open threes. Uncontested layups. I said, holy shit, these guys are Golden State Warriors level of unselfish. They have 6 guys on the roster that can get hot. Their spacing was beautiful. That half was at least 3/4 of what led me to declare to Nate about a week or two after:

“Okay, I almost don’t even want to tell you this, but for our Vegas trip, I’ve got a team for us to bet on. It’s Loyola-Chicago. I’m hesitant to tell you because I’ve become a fan and I might be biased like a fan, and I’m probably jinxing it all because if they don’t win their post-season tourney they won’t even make the NCAA tourney. But dude these guys remind me of the Gonzaga teams of the late 90’s… they’re that good. They play great team basketball. No one…I mean NO ONE… sees this team coming. They’re good enough to make a deep run. They might even be good enough to win it all.”

YOU CAN’T WIN THEM ALL… THE GOOD LOSS… Jan 31, 2018: BRADLEY 69, LOY 67

The other 1/4 of what made me gush to Nate about Loyola was a loss. No matter what people say, there is, IS, such a thing as a good loss, provided that the loss serves as a learning experience that prevents future losses. So, just days after Loyola destroyed UNI and traveled to Bradley to play a tough conference road game and lost, you’d think my confidence in the team would’ve been shaken.

It wasn’t. This was a game where Bradley came out on fire and just couldn’t miss, they played inspired basketball and led all game — their crackerbox gym was going nuts, they were playing at their highest level. Meanwhile, Loyola was weak with the ball, Loyola struggled to make shots, and with six minutes left, Loyola was trailing by 11. Not much was going right. Then, the whole team seemed to go into another gear, and operated like a time-and-score behemoth. These guys want to win them all, I thought. They want to win every single possession. They outscored Bradley 18-9 the rest of the way (18 points in six minutes translates to a 120 point rate over a game) and having a shot to tie or win the game at the end. The look of “what could have been” was all over the player’s faces. There was momentum and ultimate exhaustion from the kind of game where you claw back, and just come up short. If they’d just had one more possession, they probably win this game. They really should’ve beaten this team. They knew this.

They didn’t. And they also knew this.

They won’t lose another game, I told myself.

Fourteen games later, I’m still right about that. They weren’t really challenged during another league game or in their conference tournament.

SOMETIMES THE UNDERDOG ISN’T AS MUCH OF AN UNDERDOG AS YOU MIGHT THINK:

Mar 15, 2018 … LOY 64, MIA 62 … March 17, 2018 … LOY 63, TENN 62 … Mar 23, 2018 … LOY 69, NEV 68 … Mar 25, 2018 … LOY 78, KSU 62

The Loyola tourney run has been awesome. I don’t have much to add to it. This group is going to the Final Four. It was awesome seeing the first two rounds in Las Vegas. My buddy Johnny texted me and said “Man, you must have won a lot of money on those guys.” And I did (which then went straight into the video poker machines.) But I told him that I wasn’t nearly as happy about winning the money as I was to watch this team play to the capability that I’d seen them display earlier. I even meant it. 

The Ramblers were underdogs in every one of the above games, and they won every one of the above games. Last second heroics, a 98 year old lady team chaplain who’s become a celebrity named Sister Jean, and more of the team first style of basketball that made me a fan of these guys made the team a national story. And the same criticisms that came up before – “they don’t have the athletes” “they don’t have the size” “they haven’t beaten a team this good yet” once again are thrown out there and even more prevalent. The ceiling. The basketball world is once again absolutely convinced that Michigan “just has too much” and “it’ll be close, but Loyola will lose.”

But I’m going to keep betting on these guys because this a group of winners.

If anything, Michigan better pray that the game ISN’T close, because these guys just might…

Sink a 30 foot bomb as time expires, like Donte Ingram did here to beat Miami… or…

hit a well guarded jumper with two seconds (and two bounces off the rim) like Clay Custer did to upend Tennessee… or…

drain a gorgeous side-step three-pointer with six seconds left to turn back a furious Nevada comeback… like Marques Townes did…

The reason people root for an underdog is because, except for about 1% of the population, we’re all underdogs to some extent. But the truth of the matter is, underdogs, favorites, these titles are irrelevant when the game starts.

And yes, the odds, the data, the analytics, the DNA, all of this matters to some extent. Most experts believe that Loyola won’t win the title. The data say Loyola won’t win the title. “Most experts” and “the data” would matter a lot more if my eyes didn’t tell me that Loyola is now in the Final Four. My ode to the underdog is that if you refuse to put a ceiling on anyone or anything, until after they’ve shown you who / what they are, you might find out that for them, there’s really no ceiling at all.

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