Access to the Madness

Back in early March during a brief meeting of our Marketing and Communication staff to gameplan for our March Madness coverage, we said to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it just be great if they win that first round game?”

For Loyola to make the tournament at all was historic—this was their first trip since 1985—so the decision was for me to travel with the team, documenting what it was like for Loyola’s first team in 33 years to go to the tournament.

But realistically, all of us expected me to follow the team from early that first Tuesday morning until they exited the first round and returned on Friday.

What followed of course was one of the most improbable runs in NCAA Tournament history. It was a run full of buzzer-beaters, our lovable unofficial mascot Sister Jean (who is not a nun, despite popular belief), the support of a whole city, and a group of young men totally in awe of the spectacle.

In the locker room after their loss to Michigan one of the players asked me how Loyola’s team was different from other sports teams I’ve covered.

“Your naiveté,” I answered him.

Compared to perennial powerhouse teams I’ve covered (Badgers and Packers) who expect to be competing for championships each year, the Ramblers had no expectations beyond their idealistic catchphrase printed on their shirts of “No Finish Line.” The well-worn phrase of “we’re just taking it one game at a time” was heard in every interview, except the players were actually being sincere. To a remarkable extent, they were able to block out external distractions and solely focus on each game. Though they carried themselves into each game with a confident macho swagger, their reactions to each step of the journey to the Final Four wore away their masculine facades to reveal they are just a group of 18- to 22-year-old college kids suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.

When the team gathered for the Selection Sunday event on campus to find out who their first round opponent would be, a short video clip played on the video monitor. It was a handful of Cubs players wishing them good luck and, “Go Ramblers.” The video was maybe 30 seconds, but the players were floored. Even though they had just become the first Loyola team in 33 years to make the tournament, the players remarked after the event how cool it was that the Cubs players were cheering them on.

Each step of the way through the tournament ratcheted up their sense of awe—private buses with their logo on it, chartered planes, billboards and banners with their faces, people cheering as their bus went by, new warm-up outfits, skyscrapers lit up maroon and gold, President Obama tweeting his support…the list goes on.

After advancing to the Sweet 16 they received a police escort from the airport to campus, and players crowded into the aisle on the bus to get video of the police cars moving traffic like Moses before the Red Sea. When the crowd of fans that had gathered to welcome them home became visible, players moved to the windows to look upon a campus suddenly alive with basketball fever.

“No way!” A few of them said. “Where were all these people at the beginning of the season?” One of them asked, laughing. I thought the same thing, remembering the depressing turnout for the send-off “rally” as they embarked for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament just weeks earlier.

Later that week, I was in another March Madness meeting with the same staff, all of us thrilled at the success of the team and the positive attention around the university. “Can they keep winning?” we asked ourselves.

It turned out they could.

Now instead of the Cubs offering their generic Go Ramblers cheers, players found themselves receiving friend requests, direct messages and snaps from all sorts of celebrities. When NBA superstar Russell Westbrook found out he was sharing the hotel with the Ramblers he requested to see the team. Even before all this attention the players spent much of their free time on their phones, but now they really spent a lot of time on their phones—regularly shoving their devices in each others faces to show who just sent them a message or offered their support.

When it came time for designated media interviews the players’ naiveté and innocence was refreshing to see. While most athletes offer the same cliches in every interview, the Ramblers let their personalities shine. In an interview before the first-round game against Miami, Cameron Krutwig decided to do impressions of Will Ferrell from one of his most infamous SNL skits—the old prospector. Instantly, other players in the locker room not being interviewed chimed in with catch-phrases from the skit to make Krutwig laugh on camera. Before the second-round game against Tennessee, Carson Shanks decided to grab a mic and start interviewing players himself, usually making fun of them.

And yet with all this attention, they still genuinely took their success one game at a time. This was possible because of the team’s cohort of coaches and staff meticulously planning each day while on the road, from meal time to film study to homework to practice. Since practice time at the actual arenas was limited, coaches reserved spaces in their hotel to run through plays. Coaching assistants would spend the morning in these rooms measuring and laying down tape to precisely mirror a basketball court. This created an odd juxtaposition of players running through hotel ballrooms under the warm glow of chandeliers and the muffled sound of the ball dribbling on plush carpets.

While Coach Moser conducted practices, his assistants would be glued to their laptop monitors, clipping and cutting video clips of their upcoming opponent. Their intense study of opposing team’s games allowed them to create incredibly detailed profiles of each team and their players. Every offensive and defensive playcall—including name and hand-signal—were recorded and diagrammed for the players. Coaches would even hang posters of the opposing team’s plays on the walls at meal time or in the locker room before and after practice for players to constantly study. Considering this regimen, their oft-used “one game at a time” was less of a thoughtless catchphrase and more indicative of a necessary reality—this level of intense study rendered focusing on any other game or opponent impossible. By the end of the day, players were only left with a sliver of free time at night when they would retire to their rooms and play FIFA on an XBOX one of the players brought along.

The basketball bubble created around the team even began enveloping me. Without much time to be keeping up with the news, I was totally unaware of Sister Jean’s explosion of media coverage. It wasn’t until the pre-game prayer before the second-round game that the players became aware either. Their usually informal gathering outside the locker room with Sister Jean became a media circus, with TV cameramen jockeying me for position. During the media day before the Final Four game against Michigan, players were actually relieved that Sister Jean took most of the media attention. NCAA staff told me her press conference was the busiest they’ve ever seen at a Final Four event, which allowed for the players to retreat back into their basketball bubble.

With the loss to Michigan, that bubble burst. A swarm of media descended into their locker room after the game looking to capture the fresh emotions of a Cinderella team at the end of their run. On behalf of the media, I apologized to some of the players, “I’m sorry you guys have to sit through this. This must be awful.” Graciously, one of them responded, “It’s ok man, it’s part of the game.” And another, choking back tears, “I just wish they could wait until tomorrow you know? Half this team is never going to play together again.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to cover another team who remains innocent and genuine in the face of sudden media attention. The player’s love for each other more than winning a game or individual accomplishments was profound to witness in a crushing moment of defeat. Thanks for the crazy ride, Ramblers. You guys will go down as legends of March Madness.

If you want to see more of our coverage of the team, please visit Loyola’s website here.

And keep an eye out for an official commemorative book from Loyola celebrating the Rambler’s historic run.

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