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SportsMonday: Sweet Seeds

One sad result of the Sweet 16 run by that local team folks have been talking about is that, going forward, fewer locals will be stumped when asked to identify the only Chicago team to win an NCAA men's basketball tournament. That trivia question has been almost as good as "What is the second-most popular participatory sport in the world?" The first is soccer, of course. The second is . . . badminton.

The answer to the first question was and is Loyola University. And not only did the Ramblers win it in 1963, they did so with the first title-winning team to feature African-American players. (A few years later, Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) was the first squad with five black starters to win it all.)

If nothing else comes of the current Ramblers run, fans can celebrate a renewed focus on the program's shining moment 55 years ago.

The history-making Loyola team was coached by the not exactly well-liked George Ireland, who populated his team with black (four of whom were starters) and white players because they gave him the best chance to win, not because he was striving for social justice.

Now the question is, how do the Ramblers win another one? Or at least make a Final Four? What is remarkable is that doing the latter will not require defeating another team seeded in the top four in the Southern Region. No. 11 Loyola took care of No. 3 Tennessee, UMBC knocked off No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Cincinnati lost to Nevada and No. 4 Arizona was blitzed by Buffalo.

The Bearcat vanquishers from the Silver State are next up for the Ramblers. The local team faces the seventh-seeded Wolf Pack of Nevada on Thursday at 6:07 in Atlanta. The other regional semifinal is a battle of the Wildcats - former Illinois coach Bruce Weber's No. 9 Kansas State versus No. 5 Kentucky.

Normally the latter team, a forever basketball powerhouse, would be the prohibitive favorite. But this is a tough Kentucky team to figure out. At one point this season, these Wildcats lost seven of 11 games.

Meanwhile in Manhattan - Kansas that is - Weber's bunch was barely squeaking into the Dance. But after a win over Creighton in the first round, they out-uglied University of Maryland Baltimore County in the worst game (in terms of overall quality of play) of the tournament so far, a 50-43 brickfest, on Sunday.

The point of all of this is that while it will be very tempting to say the Ramblers have already accomplished everything anyone could have hope they would accomplish, so who cares what happens next, the truth is that they have a great chance to go further.

As for the field overall, there is certainly a sense that this is the year of the underdog. But a few fundamental favorites remain. In particular, it appears that no one is nearly as good as East Region No. 1 Villanova, which is seeking its second title in three years.

And either Duke or Kansas will probably make it out of the Midwest Region. They are the top two seeds heading into semifinal action in Omaha this weekend. Then there is the West, where Gonzaga and Michigan have been good the last three or four years of course (remember the Zags in the final last year?) but very few people picked them to make the Final Four. I wouldn't bet against Texas A&M or Florida State to rise up and beat their higher seeded foes in the upcoming semis.

So now we'll see if Loyola can they take advantage of a chance to face a lower-seeded team in the Sweet 16 than they saw in either the first or second round. And if they can do that, well, wouldn't a date with Kentucky be about as cool a match-up as a fan could enjoy?

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Comments welcome.

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