Illinois universities were almost shut out of the NCAA March Madness tournament this year. Power-conference teams like Illinois, Northwestern and DePaul all missed the big dance, while smaller state schools couldn’t sneak their way in.
The one exception? Loyola University Chicago.
Yes, it’s the Chicago Loyola. Those Ramblers exceeded the expectations of practically everyone outside of Edgewater and Rogers Park this season, winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to claim their first NCAA tournament berth in 33 years. The rare accomplishment has ratcheted up excitement for the Ramblers throughout the city and put them squarely in the local — and even the national — spotlight.
Up on campus, the excitement has also reached peak levels.
“I’ve got everybody trying to get reservations for the games,” said Michael Blaha, owner of Bulldog Ale House. “We’re the official watch spot for (Loyola) sports, so we have people, students, alumni coming in. People who I don’t know, they have their secretaries calling, strenuously requesting reservations for their boss — almost sounding scared if they don’t get it.”
While Blaha said he has made a couple of circumstantial exceptions in this case, he plans to otherwise stand by Bulldog’s “no reservations” policy, since he doesn’t want to leave regulars used to the first-come, first-served policy out in the cold.
“People are definitely coming together as a community, whether that’s Loyola or Edgewater or Rogers Park. … People from this community identify as Loyola men’s basketball fans,” he said.
At Bruno’s, a staple neighborhood tavern, manager Tim Roti can also vouch for the uptick in interest.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “Everybody likes a winner.”
Roti has been in the neighborhood for 33 years, long enough to remember the last time Loyola was in the tournament: 1985, when the Ramblers were defeated by the Georgetown Hoyas and future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.
“I think the coach (Porter Moser) has done a fantastic job,” he said. “We really haven’t had anything like this since ’85, with Gene Sullivan and Doug Bruno — that was the last time we had any decent coaches over there. ... He’s just got the players believing in themselves.”
Roti, Blaha, the neighborhood and its new visitors share the players’ enthusiasm.
“Well, I don’t know how much of an upset that would be,” Roti said when asked about Loyola’s chances of pulling off the “u-word” against the Miami Hurricanes, the Ramblers’ first-round opponent. “The last time I looked online, it was only a two-point difference … that’s not that big of a spread. If they just stick to their game plan, they can absolutely beat Miami.”
“There’s a lot of optimism right now,” Blaha said. “It’s really nice to see that they’re there and see them do well. And now, everyone is coming to be a part of this event.”
Loyola Ramblers vs. Miami Hurricanes
6562 N. Sheridan Rd., 773-764-7900
Bulldog Ale House
6606 N. Sheridan Rd., 773-274-9331
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