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The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, and Sister Jean, Return to the Round of 16

The Ramblers, who went to the Final Four in 2018, knocked off No. 1-seeded Illinois, the latest upset in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, which has been rife with them.

INDIANAPOLIS — Over the last year, there has been a greater appreciation for so many of life’s routine pleasures, particularly communal experiences — dinner with friends, a night at the movies, a day at the ballpark, holidays with family. For Cameron Krutwig, and so many other college basketball players, it was for an elemental joy that they have treasured more than ever: the bounce of a ball on hardwood and the sweat equity built only through competition.

Krutwig had already been a member of an N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament darling as a freshman center riding with his Loyola University Chicago teammates to the Final Four in 2018, capturing hearts with their spirit and the presence of their irrepressible team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.

It was, especially for a university like Loyola, which sits on the banks of Lake Michigan and in the shadow of nearby Northwestern, supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.

Now, in a season played in a pandemic, the Ramblers, with Krutwig leading the way, are attempting to reprise that run. Loyola Chicago, the No. 8 seed, made it halfway to the Final Four on Sunday by knocking out No. 1-seeded Illinois with a 71-58 victory that was every bit as convincing as the score might suggest.

If the Ramblers’ eyes are no longer wide open, they are also intent on savoring the steps along the way.

So after they celebrated the victory, with a senior, Lucas Williamson, doing a jig surrounded by his teammates, and they were headed up the tunnel to the locker room, they were called back to the court by Coach Porter Moser.

He wanted them to soak in the moment, particularly since this season they had not played in front of fans — who are being allowed in a limited capacity here — until Friday’s first-round win over Georgia Tech. The players bounced back onto the court and packed tight behind Moser and Krutwig while they donned headsets for television interviews, and they waved and acknowledged the several hundred Loyola-Chicago fans, many of them with maroon and gold scarves, in the upper reaches of the arena.

It was more than the moment that was making a memory.

“This year has been a roller coaster, from canceling games to no fans to not even knowing if we’re going to have a season,” Krutwig said in comparing the experiences. “Last May, it was pretty dark, pretty bleak. We didn’t know if we were going to have a season or anything.”

He continued: “That Final Four run and everything will hold a special place in my heart, obviously, but this one feels special-er and sweeter in the moment because I’m here, because I’m in the present right now.”

Loyola-Chicago guard Braden Norris driving for a layup against Illinois.
Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Since teams began arriving more than a week ago in Indianapolis, the hub for the entire tournament this year, players have been tested for the coronavirus daily and largely confined to their hotels, each team alone on its own floor. The extraordinary setup is an attempt to keep the virus at bay, but it could not prevent Virginia Commonwealth from exiting shortly before its first game, scheduled for Saturday night against Oregon, after an outbreak within the team.

The chaotic regular season, with cancellations, postponements, pauses and fluctuating results, has, not surprisingly, led to a haywire results.

Loyola’s upset was the latest in a tournament that has been rife with them. A record nine double-digit seeds advanced out of the first round with teams like Oral Roberts, Abilene Christian and North Texas moving on. Ohio advanced, but Ohio State did not.

Loyola’s victory, though surprising, was not a shock.

The Ramblers (26-4), who won the Missouri Valley Conference, were seeded eighth in the Midwest region, despite the N.C.A.A.’s own metric system and the more credible Pomeroy college basketball ratings, which assessed the Ramblers as a top 10 team.

“I certainly thought we were misplaced,” said Sister Jean, dressed in her letterman’s jacket with small maroon-and-gold balloons adorning her wrist from her perch halfway up the arena. “Sometimes when the committee makes decisions, sometimes it’s heart, sometimes it’s head, sometimes it’s numbers, sometimes it’s — I hate to say the last word — it’s politics.”

The good Sister, now 101 years old and fully vaccinated, has shown the same sort of resiliency as the players. She reached an agreement with the university last week to travel to Indianapolis, drawing on the biblical parable of an old woman in the Gospel of Luke who petitions a judge to grant her wishes until he eventually concedes, saying, “Let her do what she wants.”

Sister Jean, in her role as chaplain, addressed the team on Sunday morning as she always does beforehand. This year, though, it has been by videoconference. Her message included a scouting report — that the Illini make only half of their shots near the rim and a third of them from the 3-point line. All those rebounds would be an opportunity, so grab them.

Were her scouting reports always so prescient?

“Not always,” she conceded. “But I study the box score. I told them to watch No. 1, No. 11 and No. 21.”

She added: “Porter and I are always on the same page without chatting with each other, and he doesn’t mind if I say that.”

Moser, whose team entered the tournament with the top-rated defense in the country, conjured a masterly game plan, and his players executed it to near perfection. Their targets were the Illini’s two stars: the dynamic guard Ayo Dosunmu and the bullish center Kofi Cockburn, one a first-team all-American, the other a second-team pick. (No. 11 and No. 21 in Sister Jean’s book.)

Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The Ramblers hounded Dosunmu on the perimeter to get the ball out of his hands — limiting him to 9 points on 10 shots and forcing him into six turnovers. Inside, they rushed Cockburn, who is 7-foot, 285 pounds and a master at clearing space under the basket with his lower body. As soon as Cockburn received entry passes into the post with Krutwig behind him, two Ramblers swarmed him, not allowing him to put the ball on the floor and giving him little room to get off a shot. The scheme also exposed a rare weakness in Cockburn’s game — he is not a good passer.

Though he contributed 21 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals — all leading his team — Cockburn did not manage a single assist.

Meanwhile, Krutwig, a crafty left-hander with a plow horse physique and delicate feet, was the fulcrum of a sublime offense. He had 19 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and on defense had four steals, including diving far from the basket to knock a ball off Dosunmu that all but sealed the outcome. The sophomore point guard Braden Norris, who played 39 minutes, expertly orchestrated an attack that repeatedly created offense late in the shot clock.

As they left the court for the last time, the Ramblers — Keith Clemons, Aher Uguak and Krutwig among them — waved to Sister Jean as she waved back.

She will return to Chicago to work on a scouting report for the Ramblers’ opponent in the round of 16 and craft a message before her wheelchair is rolled into place wherever Loyola plays next week.

“I’ll be back,” she said, along with her team.

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