In a new era of Loyola basketball, the Ramblers are back in touch with their former selves.
Which is to say, they’re almost certainly going to have to win a conference championship to get to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six seasons.
That wasn’t the big idea when Loyola stepped up from the Missouri Valley, usually a one-bid league, to join the Atlantic 10, which is accustomed to seeing two or three of its teams go dancing. But with their A-10 debut coming up against George Washington on Saturday, the Ramblers are shambling along at 6-6 — a non-conference mark that includes the program’s first four-game losing streak since the season before the Final Four glory of 2018.
An overtime loss to DePaul in Rogers Park that took place after that skid only deepened the problem. A good win against Clemson put some hope back on the table.
“Confirmation to our guys that what we do here, it works if you put your head down and continue to work,” coach Drew Valentine said.
Valentine believes this team can rally like the 2019-20 squad did after early “Ls” against Furman and Coppin State. Those Ramblers still eclipsed 20 wins, though they wouldn’t have made the NCAA field had the postseason not been nixed by the pandemic. Each of the school’s last three NCAA teams won the MVC tournament, ensuring a happy Selection Sunday.
“I think it shows how special what we did last year was,” Valentine said of his first season in charge after taking the reins from Porter Moser.
What’s the ceiling for these Ramblers? In the A-10, it could be fairly high, especially given the early struggles of preseason favorites Dayton and Saint Louis. Veteran guards Braden Norris and Marquise Kennedy are still doing their things. Division II transfer Phil Alston has been outstanding, and redshirt freshman Ben Schwieger could develop into a successor of sorts to Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson.
But there’s a ton of heavy lifting to do. It’s a reminder that the Big Dance isn’t for everybody. It’s supposed to be hard as heck to get there, and that’s because it is.
Illinois disappeared from my AP ballot after a pathetic showing against Missouri and deserves to be out of the Top 25 on Monday. The Illini play like a team more thrown together than grown together and far less than the sum of its talented, but disparate, parts.
Is veteran Coleman Hawkins lost? Is transfer Matthew Mayer unhappy with his fit? Does coach Brad Underwood have the answers? It’ll take more from Underwood than hammering away about “effort” and “toughness” until his vocal cords give out like predecessor John Groce’s. It’ll take more than screaming at players and making faces that would make Frankenstein avert his gaze. The coaching has to improve, too. …
Circle Jan. 4 on your calendar. Northwestern could be 11-2 when the Illini visit Welsh-Ryan Arena. There’s some life in the Wildcats, who’ve had a stellar December. …
There’s some life in the Bulls, winners of three straight, or is there? Nothing could extinguish it faster than a loss to the awful Rockets on Monday at the United Center. The Bulls are 2-9 against the Western Conference, so prepare yourselves. …
In all of new Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson’s introductory remarks this week, four words stood out to me:
“We don’t do losing.”
The rest of us are going to have to hold him to that. …
“That’s why you play the game,” ex-Bears linebacker Roquan Smith said Saturday after a victory that clinched a playoff spot for the Ravens.
Sheesh, no wonder the guy got traded. He’s in his fifth season and still doesn’t realize the ultimate goal is a top-two draft pick.
THIS YOU GOTTA SEE
Bucks at Bulls (Wednesday, 7 p.m., NBCSCH): The Bulls have already beaten mighty Milwaukee once this season. Wait, doesn’t that mean they’ve reached their limit?
Gator Bowl: Notre Dame vs. South Carolina (Friday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN): Whatever happens, it can’t be worse than last season’s Fiesta Bowl, when the Irish blew a three-touchdown lead against Oklahoma State. So they’ve got that going for them.
CBB: George Washington at Loyola (Saturday, 3 p.m., NBCSCH): A-10 life begins for the Ramblers, whose previous life was, it bears repeating, pretty dang good.
ONLY BECAUSE YOU ASKED
From Tony, via Facebook: “What’s your favorite bowl venue?”
That’s easy: the Rose Bowl.
Second favorite: also the Rose Bowl.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
Christmas trees: They have a way of blocking the TV, which can be a real problem when the Blackhawks aren’t playing.
Carlos Correa: The superstar shortstop’s health status remains up in the air, but we should know more after Mets owner Steve Cohen signs a free-agent doctor to a 10-year, $300 million contract to get to the bottom of it.
Zach Wilson: The Jets quarterback is no Sam Darnold. Wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing?
Velus Jones: Still trying to wrap the ol’ brain around the slippery-fingered Bears rookie’s great catch on a deep ball Saturday. And I thought bomb cyclones were rare.
Teacup Yorkies: Illinois football coach Bret Bielema has two of them and says they were knocked over by a gust of wind this weekend while outside doing their business. Does that mean they’re ready for Bears tryouts?