SAN ANTONIO — Don’t let the saintly face of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt fool you. Loyola Chicago is here because of divine execution, not divine intervention.
Perhaps, adorable and devout team chaplain Sister Jean gives the Ramblers a spiritual edge with the great scorekeeper in the sky. But Loyola Chicago reached this weekend’s Final Four — college basketball’s promised land — riding more than thoughts and prayers.
Their backstory of friendship — guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson are childhood pals from Overland Park, Kan., facilitating Custer’s transfer to Loyola — and faith is made for March. But so is their team.
The Ramblers are less of a parable and more of a paragon for the beauty of college basketball. Their hoops success is what this most American and meritocratic of sporting events is about.
Loyola Chicago is the clear sentimental favorite in San Antonio. The Missouri Valley Conference champions (and Sister Jean) have captured the imagination of the nation as only the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
The Ramblers have embraced the moment and the national support, but not the underdog label. They don’t see themselves as interlopers in the company of Villanova, Kansas, and Michigan. They have a point, considering they’re 30-2 this season when Custer (who won the aptly-named Larry Bird Player of the Year Award in the MVC) is in the lineup.
The Ramblers are far more than piety and novelty. Owners of a 32-5 record, they belong here. They enter Saturday night’s semifinal against Michigan riding the nation’s longest winning streak (14 games). They finished the season with an RPI of 22, higher than Big 12 big boys Texas Tech and West Virginia. They rank third in the country in field goal percentage (50.9) and fourth in the nation in scoring defense (62.4 points per game).
It’s easy to paint the team from the Jesuit school in Chicago as the Holy Hoosiers. The Ramblers’ maroon-and-gold uniforms even look similar to the fictional Hickory High duds. But they don’t buy it.
“To us all year long, especially during this tournament, it hasn’t really been about expectations from the outside. We in the locker room, our team, and our staff has just been completely full of belief that we can play with all of these teams and that we belong on this stage,” said Richardson.
“It’s not just false confidence. We put in a ton of time and a ton of work, and that work just gives us belief in ourselves and in each other. Our confidence has grown every time we’ve defeated a big team.
“Now, we’re going out on a big stage we’re not supposed to be on. We’re from the Valley. We got out and play in front of 17,000 and win and people are like, ‘Well, OK, that was great, but what’s the ceiling for this team or whatever?’ But for us we just keep getting more confidence. We’ve had that belief. We’re staying hungry and greedy for more.”
Loyola is one of the most balanced teams in the tournament with five players averaging double figures, led by Iowa State transfer Custer (13.2 points per game). They can beat you with a layered offense that creates open shots and makes it difficult to key on one player.
Custer; Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Marques Townes; senior guard Donte Ingram, who hit the winning shot in the first round against Miami; senior Aundre Jackson, and Richardson, the MVC’s Defensive Player of the Year, are all capable of taking the lead.
Richardson scored a career-high 23 points and connected on a career-best six threes in the South Regional final victory that sent Loyola to San Antonio.
With Loyola lacking a star like Bird was for the Indiana State 1979 Final Four team, Sister Jean has become the face of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, bar nun.
The Loyola players said they’re happy Sister Jean, who supports them with words of encouragement and personalized notes, is sharing in the spotlight.
“She makes you feel better about what’s going on in your life. That’s the thing that is special about her,” said Custer.
“I know I’ve seen some things that some people are like frustrated that she is getting more attention than us or whatever. But none of us think that. We don’t think that at all. We’re so happy for Sister Jean. We want the world to know who she is because she is an amazing person and she inspires all of us. We want her to get as much attention as possible.”
Attention wasn’t a problem on Friday for a beaming Sister Jean. The 98-year-old chaplain for the Ramblers drew a huge media crowd in the bowels of the Alamodome during her only scheduled news conference of the week.
Loyola coach Porter Moser quipped that the standing-room-only media throng reminded him of another sacred American sporting event.
“I thought it looked like Tom Brady at the Super Bowl,” Moser said.
Sister Jean has created a cult of personality around the Loyola program as a pious pop culture darling. Her name and likeness are being put on all types of products, including “Air Jean” T-shirts that evoke the Air Jordan motif with the wheelchair-using nonagenarian, who broke her hip in November.
“She is larger than life now. She is an icon. It’s really cool to see,” said Custer.
In a nod to the confidence she has in her boys, Sister Jean said Loyola is planning to have an Easter Sunday service here, which would mean Loyola plans on sticking around for Monday’s national championship game.
Even jaded media members can’t get enough of Sister Jean. When she concluded her 15-minute session, there was a round of applause. She left media members with some words that they don’t often hear: “You’re great people, and don’t let anybody put you down at any time.”
Right on, Sister.
Can you imagine Patriots coach Bill Belichick wrapping up a news conference in such a fashion?
The charisma of Sister Jean has made it tough for some to remember that there is another Catholic school in the Final Four. Maybe, Villanova should take Communion on the court.
If you don’t have a rooting interest in the Final Four, it’s easy to pull for Loyola. Just remember they’re more than a fun Sister act.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.