It’s that time of year. The madness of March is back, and this year’s Ohio State Buckeyes unit has made the NCAA Tournament once again — this time as a No. 7 seed. Chris Holtmann’s team has not had a ton of success in the postseason tourney, memorably losing to Oral Roberts a year ago to suffer an immediate exit. They’ll be looking to right the ship this time around, but it will be no easy task, as the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago stand in their way.
Opponents get significantly more unfamiliar now that conference play has come to an end, but many Ohio State fans are probably at least somewhat aware of Loyola-Chicago thanks to their Cinderella run to the Final Four in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. But that was then and this is now, so who exactly are this year’s Ramblers? Let’s learn a few things about the Buckeyes’ first round opponent.
1) America’s favorite nun is back
Part of what made Loyola-Chicago’s miracle run even more special was not what was going on the court, but who was on the sidelines for it all. Sister Jean stole America’s hearts as a Ramblers super-fan. The now 102-year-old nun is an an American religious sister of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also the chaplain of the Loyola-Chicago men’s basketball team. This year, she will be back on the sidelines for the Ramblers in the NCAA Tournament, hoping to bring more of the good fortune she seemingly brought the team both in 2018 and 2021.
Sister Jean first became a star after Loyola-Chicago upset Miami in the 2018 tourney. Her popularity only continued to grow as the team went on to defeat Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State to advance to the program’s first Final Four since 1963. The Ramblers would eventually fall to Michigan in that Final Four game, but the legend of Sister Jean had been born. She would return in 2021, and Loyola-Chicago again came away with a massive upset over No. 1 seed Illinois to advance to the Sweet 16. Sister Jean will be in the house on Friday, and Ohio State fans will be hoping the magic has worn off by now. No offense, Sister.
(Fun Fact: Sister Jean is older than Ohio Stadium, which broke ground in 1921 — two years after she was born!)
2) A (somewhat) familiar face
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, but we are talking about Valentines.
During those previous two runs in the NCAA Tournament, Loyola-Chicago was led by head coach Porter Moser, who was the headman of the program for 10 years from 2011-21. It was a slow start for Moser with the Ramblers, but after winning the CBI in 2014-15, things started to get going. A 32-6 season in 2017-18 resulted in both regular season and tournament titles for Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference, and ended with that aforementioned Final Four run. That campaign started a streak of four-consecutive winning seasons for the Ramblers and a trio of conference titles, and Moser would go on to take the Oklahoma job at the start of this season.
This season, Loyola-Chicago is led by Drew Valentine. If his name and appearance are somewhat familiar, that is because he is the older brother of Denzel Valentine, a former AP Player of the Year at Michigan State who once hit a game-winning three-pointer over Ohio State — on Valentines Day, no less — in 2015. Previously a grad assistant for the Spartans under Tom Izzo and an assistant coach for his alma mater Oakland, the elder Valentine was hired by the Ramblers at 29 years old, becoming the youngest head coach in Division I basketball. He was previously on staff from 2017-21 as an assistant.
In his first year at the helm, Valentine led his team to a 25-7 record and an MVC Tournament title. Now, he will be looking to win his first NCAA Tournament appearance as head coach and follow in the footsteps of his younger brother by defeating Ohio State.
3) MVC magic
This was the last season for Loyola-Chicago playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, as it has been announced they will be joining the Atlantic 10 as of this July. The Ramblers first joined the MVC back in 2013, coming over from the Horizon League. Since becoming a member, Loyola-Chicago has earned at least a share of the regular season title three times, and landed the conference’s auto bid to the NCAA Tournament by emerging victorious in ‘Arch Madness’ — aka the MVC Conference Tournament — thrice (2018, 2021, 2022).
While the MVC isn’t exactly known as a basketball powerhouse, the conference has had a tremendous amount of success in the NCAA Tournament over the last decade. In eight off the last night brackets, a Missouri Valley Conference team has won a first-round game, with a 11-3 mark overall in the first round during that timeframe. The league has also done quite well for itself in the following rounds, with a pair of Sweet 16 runs (2021 Loyola-Chicago, 2015 Wichita State) and the MVC’s only two trips to the Final Four in the modern era (2018 Loyola-Chicago, 2013 Wichita State).
With the Ramblers the only member of the MVC in this year’s tourney, Ohio State will be looking to put an end to that streak.
4) Ohio ties
As a school based in Chicago, it is no surprise to see much of the talent on this year’s Loyola-Chicago team comes from around the Midwest. Five players on the roster are from within the Illinois borders, including leading scorer Lucas Williamson, who hails from the school’s backyard in Chicago. A trio of players come from Indiana, while Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska have one representative each. Senior forward Aher Uguak is from Canada, which I’m told is the Midwest of the north. Even head coach Drew Valentine is from Michigan.
The one player on the team out of the great state of Ohio is a good one. Junior guard Braden Norris is a native of Hilliard, Ohio. The team’s second-leading scorer, Norris averaged 10.3 points per game this season while averaging a team-high 3.9 assists per game. A Hilliard Bradley High School product, Norris began his collegiate career at Oakland before transferring to Loyola-Chicago after one season. Ohio State was one of the many teams to reach out to him during his time in the transfer portal, but did not end up offering him a scholarship. Norris played against both Justin Ahrens and Kyle Young when they were all in high school.
Norris will likely be playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked by the hometown school, and as the team’s leading three-point shooter, he will be one to look out for come Friday.
5) The Office
Loyola University Chicago, founded in 1870, is a private school in — you guessed it — Chicago, Illinois. It is actually a relatively large university, spanning six campuses across the Chicago metropolitan area and enrolling approximately 17,000 students. Despite its size, there aren’t all that many super famous Loyola-Chicago alumni. They get to lay claim for Wal-Mart CFO Thomas Schoewe and McDonalds corporate chairman Michael R. Quinlan, but I wouldn’t exactly call those guys ‘famous’. You may know of Todd Ricketts, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, and you’re even more likely to know Shams Charania, NBA insider for The Athletic.
All of these guys are very successful Loyola-Chicago alumni, but the most famous of all is far and away Leslie David Baker, or as you know him, Stanley from The Office. Before landing the gig on one of the world’s most popular TV shows, Baker earned a B.S. in psychology from Loyola University Chicago, and went on to get an M.S. in human services administration from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. Ironically enough, Baker played an office worker in commercials for OfficeMax to make some extra cash while working on his Masters — a sign of things to come! Overall, Baker played the character of Stanley Hudson in 188 episodes of The Office from 2005-13.
Ohio State will play in the very first game to begin the Friday slate, tipping off against Loyola-Chicago at 12:15 p.m. ET on CBS. As of the time this was written, the game is currently a pick-em on the DraftKings Sportsbook, meaning that the odds are even for either team to win. The over/under is set at 133 points.
The Vegas odds agree — this should be a good one!