The Sweet 16 of March Madness!

No offense to your brackets, but, for me, this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament has been a bit of a dud for those of us always pull for a few big surprises. 

Sure, the Oregon Ducks have been on a massive roll through the Pac-12 tournament and the first two games of the NCAA tournament. 

Sorry, Oregon.  Your Pac-12 conference Ducks are just not the same type of feel-good small school story as last year’s Loyola-Chicago Ramblers team and their now-99 year old good luck charm, Sister Jean

This year’s final 16 teams are pretty much the expected teams among the big boys of basketball.  There are some good stories, but the sports journalists will have to work a bit harder this year.

Heading into Thursday and Friday night’s games, we have all four #1 seeds left, all four of the #2 seeds remaining, and all four of the #3 seeds still in the tourney? 

Yawn. 

All of the top 12 teams are standing this year after two games!  Add two #4 seeds (Florida State and Virginia Tech), a #5 seed (Auburn) and #12 Oregon, and there’s this year’s Sweet 16. 

However, did you know that Sister Jean’s Loyola-Chicago Ramblers had won the National Championship back in 1963? 

Did you also know that Loyola-Chicago has one more National Championship in their basketball trophy case than this year’s #1 seeds Virginia and Gonzaga, #2 seed Tennessee, #3 seeds LSU, Purdue, Texas Tech, and the University of Houston, #4 seeded Virginia Tech, and #5 Auburn?

So, despite the blue bloods like Kentucky (8 national titles), North Carolina (6), Duke (5), Michigan State (2), and others like Michigan and Oregon with one trophy each, there are ten other extremely hungry teams in the remaining field of 16 who still have the chance to win their first men’s basketball championship.

The good news about this weekend’s basketball schedule is that ANYONE left in this field could still win it all. 

The two “worst” remaining teams (#12 seed Oregon and #5 seed Auburn) both won their conference tournaments to get into the field and are playing a frenetic style of basketball with full-court pressure, sharpshooting three-point bombs, and are scoring points at pinball wizard speed. 

What about LSU, you ask?  Can you imagine the “holier-than-thou” national media screaming about a team which suspended its coach (Will Wade) who won’t even talk to his bosses about a reported wire-tapping of a possible payoff to the family of one of their current players? 

LSU was already playing hard as they dedicated this season to honor one of their players (20-year old Wayde Sims) who was shot and killed in Baton Rouge back in September.  His father (Wayne Sims) had played on the LSU basketball team in the 1980’s for Coach Dale Brown.

This year’s Tigers’ team has nothing to lose at this point.  They have plenty of talent but need to play their best games now if they want to advance. 

If the allegations about Coach Will Wade turn out to be true, LSU’s team should be be approaching each game as if it may be the last NCAA tournament game of their college careers.  The NCAA would likely place LSU on a lengthy suspension from post-season play if the worst is confirmed.

Gonzaga would be a great story, too!  Coach Mark Few has taken this small university in Spokane, Washington to national prominence in the past two decades.

The Zags have made the NCAA basketball tournament for 21 consecutive seasons!  They appeared in the national championship game two years ago but lost to North Carolina.

Gonzaga’s overall NCAA tournament record is now 33-21 and now equates to 61% winning percentage.   By contrast, the Duke Blue Devils lead this year’s field with a combined men’s tournament record of 111-36 (75.5%) followed by North Carolina, which sports a 123-45 tournament record (73%). 

So, your statistical best chances to win it all remain with Duke and North Carolina in a potential finals match-up this year.

I feel hopeful that at least one or two “spoiler” teams will emerge from the pack by the end of this weekend to prevent the Final Four from becoming the second-ever match-up of four #1 seeds in history.     

It isn’t called “March Madness” for nothing! 

Death of the Diaper Dandy Dynasties?

The NCAA basketball’s Final Four is now set for this Saturday in San Antonio.  The upstart Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago will square off with the Big 10’s Michigan Wolverines while #1 seeds Kansas and Villanova will play the nightcap.  These teams earned their way to the big stage, and it should be a magnificent day of college hoops in the Alamo City.

It is also notable who will not be in the final weekend of this year’s March Madness.  No Kentucky.  No Duke.  Two of the nation’s foremost college basketball programs will again be sitting out the dance this year.

For both the Wildcats and Blue Devils, this marks the third consecutive year which neither team will play in the championship game of men’s college basketball.  These two national hoops hotbeds have been on the Final Four sidelines more than in the championship game in recent years.  Duke’s last championship came in 2015, while Big Blue in Kentucky last hoisted a trophy in 2012.

Based on the hype surrounding those two teams and their recent one-on-one battles for the most prized high school recruits, you would think those two schools would be winning the tournament more often.

The answer, of course, is that Kentucky and Duke have become the nation’s foremost “one and done” schools for many young players whose sole intent is to meet the NBA’s minimum eligibility requirements after one year at school.

In 2018, Kentucky’s starting five consisted of all freshmen, while Duke started four freshmen and a lone senior, Grayson Allen.  Nine freshmen out of ten starters!  Sadly, most of these nine young players have convinced themselves that they are now ready to play in the NBA.

A few may make it, but most won’t.

Imagine, for a moment, just how good a Kentucky or Duke team just might be if many of these players would stay in school and play for two or three seasons?

Meanwhile, the four teams playing in this weekend’s games will start a total of two (count ’em) freshmen while juniors and seniors dominate the starting fives.  The twenty starting players will be focused on the ultimate team goal – winning a national championship.

Kentucky, Duke and a few other universities have opted to invest in recruiting the highly-hyped “one and done” high school basketball stars to, in part, avoid having so-called rebuilding years following the loss of key upperclassmen.  All the while, both these schools and their younger players wink while knowing they are mutually using each other for their own financial gain.

It is time for the NCAA and the NBA to end this charade by permitting high school players to go directly into the professional ranks (including the development leagues).  Alternatively, for those players who elect to sign an athletic scholarship to play college ball, those student-athletes should be required to make a minimum three-year commitment to the program and, hopefully, take advantage of the educational opportunities.

This weekend’s Final Four “older kids” have worked hard to accomplish a singular goal of winning a national championship.  It will be a treat to watch them give it their all.

Meanwhile, the Diaper Dandy kiddie programs have returned home and are all tucked-in taking their pre-NBA draft naps.

Shh…Don’t anyone wake-up these sleeping programs anytime soon.

I am having too much fun again this year without them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loyola-Chicago, Sister Jean, and their San Antonio Mission

Cinderella has officially arrived at the big dance!  The #11 seed from the South region of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament has crashed the party of basketball’s blue bloods and will bring their ever-growing legion of fans from around the nation and the world into San Antonio next Saturday for the Final Four.

The Ramblers of Loyola University-Chicago are going to the big dance for the first time since 1963.

A week prior to the start of this year’s March Madness, your ever-observant SwampSwami successfully (for once!) deemed Loyola-Chicago as his sleeper pick in this year’s field.  Moral – it’s better to be lucky than good, because I also picked Virginia to win it all (oops).

https://swampswami.com/march-madness-lord-ive-become-a-ramblers-fan/

What I wasn’t aware of at the time of the prior article was the secret weapon of Loyola-Chicago, Sister Jean.  By now, everyone knows that this 98-year old basketball-happy nun offers-up a prayer for the team before every game.

When asked after an earlier win about how she motivates the Loyola team prior to tip-off, the team’s inspirational beacon said, “I told them that we were going to win, that we could do it & that God would be on our side.”

I seem to recall a couple of Chicago-based musicians whose mantra was that they, too, were on a mission from God.  Jake and Elwood (aka The Blues Brothers) didn’t do anything the orthodox way.  But they really had that positive Chicago swagger and, wow, could they dance!

This Saturday, the University of Michigan (winners of the West Region) will stand between America’s college basketball darlings and their chance to play for the 2018 national championship.

Hey, Michigan.  Did you know that the city which is home to this year’s Final Four, San Antonio, is also known for their five historic Spanish missions (including The Alamo)?

Beware, Wolverines.

Your Chicago-based opponent is rambling into town on yet another mission!

 

 

March Madness! Lord, I’ve become a Ramblers fan

It’s not even the start of the NCAA’s college basketball playoffs (affectionately known as “March Madness” – even though the final game will occur on April 2?).  Last weekend, though, I found my Cinderella team for this year’s tourney and am ready to ride the wave of hoops euphoria into an upset or two (or three…).

Ladies and gentlemen – Meet the Ramblers of Loyola – Chicago!

This is a team which hasn’t been dancing in the NCAA’s annual basketball tournament since 1985.  That was even before the NFL’s Chicago Bears danced into America’s hearts with the Super Bowl Shuffle as they obliterated their football competition in winning the city’s only Super Bowl trophy.

Loyola University in Chicago grabbed the Missouri Valley Conference championship last weekend in St. Louis (aptly named “Arch Madness”) with a resounding 65-49 thumping of Illinois State.  The Ramblers plowed through the MVC with a 15-3 conference record and sport a sparkling 28-5 overall mark.  The team is ranked #4 nationally in fewest points allowed per game.

The Ramblers are riding a ten game winning streak heading into the NCAA tournament.  Loyola-Chicago has trouble getting the “name” schools to come play them, but they grabbed an impressive road win in beating the University of Florida 65-59 in Gainesville in early December.  These guys can play.

This squad also has momentum and is led by a group of hungry seniors who want to keep playing basketball together.  This isn’t a team built with “one and done” players like Kentucky and Duke, for example.

One of them is a 6’6″ homegrown Chicago high school star who felt more at home with Loyola than playing for one of the big name schools.  Donte Ingram won the Missouri Valley tournament’s MVP award last weekend as he continues to demonstrate that Chicagoland players can grow their game and play for a winning college team without having to leave town.

Want more?  Two of the starting senior guards on this team have been playing ball together for a long, long time.  Would you believe since the third grade?  Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson came to Loyola-Chicago from Overland Park, Kansas where they grew up only 15 houses apart from each other.  This formidable backcourt tandem won two high school basketball championships together.  They think alike on the court, wear #13 and #14 (of course) and can breakdown a defense with their penetrating drives and accurate 3-point shooting.

History?  Chicago-Loyola has one NCAA basketball championship to its credit back in 1963.  That team made waves in the 1960’s by becoming the first national champion to start four black players as they defeated the University of Cincinnati in the final game.

And what about that odd nickname, Ramblers?  Though I figured it might have something to do with my Dad’s 1966 station wagon made by a company which used to go by the same name, Loyola-Chicago’s nickname travels back in time to the year 1926.  At that time, the school’s athletic program had to travel far and wide to find opponents to play games.  Thus they “rambled” across the land in search of finding athletic contests.  Amazingly, after 92 more years, they still do.

So, bring on the ACC, the Big Ten, and the rest of the big boys starting next week.  They better bring their “A” game, because, after 33 years of waiting to get back into the NCAA’s big dance, these Ramblers know how to travel and are planning to stay on the dance floor for as long as they can!