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Loyola did it!
And so did Lipscomb, Radford and Murray State. On Sunday they all advanced to the Dance, otherwise of course known as the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball tournament that begins in a week-and-a-half. The underdogs are set.
Loyola is the focus around here. The Ramblers' move to the Missouri Valley Conference five years ago finally paid off as they earned their first invite to the national tournament since 1985 with an automatic bid by dint of a 65-49 over Illinois State to claim the conference tournament crown.
But there are plenty of other great stories as well. Lipscomb, a smallish Christian school in Nashville, makes its first-ever trip to March Madness. The Bisons won the ASUN conference championship by playing a delightful brand of run-and-gun basketball. They scored 108 points in their conference final!
Radford (located in its namesake town a little more than 30 miles southwest of Roanoke in western Virginia) barely scored half as many points in the Big South final, but that was enough to beat Liberty 55-52 on a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
And Murray State (Murray, Kentucky) thumped Belmont to win the Ohio Valley 68-51.
Back to Loyola. One of the best things about this team is its players' points of origin.
Pride of the South Side Donte Ingram (a senior from Simeon) earned the Most Outstanding (Tournament) Player award after scoring 18 for the Ramblers on Sunday.
The Ramblers' best young player is freshman Lucas Williamson, who at this time last year was suiting up for the West Side's Whitney Young. Williamson has come off the bench for Loyola this year but he figures to move into a starting role soon.
And the suburbs are spoken for by 6-9 starting center Cameron Krutwig. Williamson's fellow first-year man has come a long, long way this season, dropping 35 pounds since leaving Jacobs High School in Algonquin behind. He is still plenty beefy and he has led the Ramblers in rebounds.
Add in a couple kids from suburban Kansas City - conference MVP Clayton Custer and MVC Defensive Player of the Year Ben Richardson - and a transfer from Fairleigh Dicksinson in New Jersey, Marques Townes, and you have the core of a team that finished the year with a 28-5 overall record.
Now they get to kick back, relax and await the NCAA selection show next Sunday, when they will find out who they will play and where.
As will Michigan, who won the Big 10 tourney on Sunday. Initially I thought having the Big 10 tournament in New York City was a terrible idea. But then they sold out the Garden for the semifinals on Saturday and a friend who was there said it was quite a scene, especially when his alma mater held off Michigan State to reach Sunday's final. Then yesterday Michigan held on against Purdue to win their second straight Big 10 tournament title. If you didn't know already, John Beilen can coach. Michigan is 10-1 in its last three conference tournaments.
Meanwhile, Loyola was playing in front of a relatively sparse crowd in the final of Arch Madness in St. Louis. But what those onlookers lacked in numbers, they made up for in spirit, especially when they rushed the court after Loyola's win.
The Big 10 took their big event to New York in the aftermath of adding Rutgers to the conference a number of years ago. A big reason for increasing the membership at that time was theoretically pulling in viewers for the Big 10 television network from New York, which is just up the pike from Rutgers.
Except I have yet to speak with anyone who believes there is any sort of Rutgers fan hub in the big city. The main thing the Scarlett Knights have provided the Big 10 so far is wins, i.e., the team never finishes among the leaders in the conference in football or men's basketball.
Anyway, the conference tournament madness continues all week. A few of the directional schools in Illinois still have longshots at Big Dance invites (they will have to win their conference tournaments) but it is looking like Loyola will be the only team from Illinois to advance.
It is far from an impressive number but hey, one team from Illinois is way better than none.
Loyola Conference Championship Highlights.
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