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COLUMN: Loyola-Chicago is on a mission from God to save college basketball



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Loyola head coach Porter Moser addresses fans as the team celebrates after a 78-62 win against Kansas State in an NCAA Tournament regional final March 24 at Philips Arena in Atlanta. They will play Michigan on Saturday in the Final Four. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

In the legendary 1980 comedy, The Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd played Jake and Elwood Blues, two brothers with checkered pasts. When Jake is released from prison, they set out to raise enough money to save the Chicago Catholic boarding school they were raised in by getting their old blues band back together and putting on one more big show.

They claimed it was a “mission from God.”

Along the way, they made a number of enemies, including Jake’s mysterious ex-lover, played by the late Carrie Fisher. She's trying to assassinate the two brothers in increasingly absurd ways each time.

Yet Jake and Elwood inexplicably survive each time, as if some greater power were watching over them.

Though they may not be a band of blues musicians and their university of just over 16,000 students may not be a small boarding school, Loyola-Chicago has been on a similar quest to the Blues Brothers.

For instance, the first time Jake and Elwood encounter Fisher’s character, she fires around five missiles out of a rocket launcher, only for the two to duck and cover just in time for them to fly past them without harm.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament against sixth-seeded Miami, Loyola’s rocket launcher attack came in the form of Hurricane guard Ja’Quan Newton’s late 3-pointer that put his team back in the lead with less than a minute to play.

However, the Ramblers survived, thanks to senior guard Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer that fell through the nets with just 0.3 seconds. It secured a 64-62 win.

Just seconds away from elimination, Loyola emerged unharmed.

Later in the film, Fisher tries again by detonating a bomb in the brothers’ apartment. With the dilapidating building crumbling around them, Jake and Elwood, still asleep in bed, slip through the cracks and walk away as if nothing even happened.

After squeaking by Miami, Loyola went up against three-seed Tennessee. The Volunteers set off a bomb of their own with a late 14-3 run to retake the lead with just 20 seconds remaining. 

Slipping helplessly like a sleeping Jake Blues, the Ramblers escaped yet again when junior guard Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to propel his team to a 63-62 victory.

Fisher came back once again to take out the brothers when she took a flamethrower to the phone booth the two were standing in. An explosion from a conveniently-placed nearby propane tank sends the phone booth hurling in mid-air and eventually crashing back to the ground. Of course, Jake and Elwood roll out with no injuries.

Nevada had a fiery comeback of their own against Loyola in the Sweet Sixteen. When the Wolfpack battled back from a 10-point deficit to get within one point, junior guard Marques Townes crushed any hope of a lead change when he hit a three with seven seconds left in the game. The Ramblers walked off the court unscathed yet again, this time with a 69-65 triumph.

It seems as if a similar higher power has been watching over them during their miraculous run as an 11-seed to the Final Four, which they recently clinched with a 78-62 thumping of Kansas State in the Elite Eight.

However, their “mission from God” might be on a bit higher scale than they even realize.

In a time in major American sports when parity can be a rarity, the men’s NCAA tournament has become the exception. Cinderella stories arise almost every year but not many can say they made it as far as Loyola has. It’s what sets college basketball apart from the NBA and the NFL. They need the Loyolas. They need the Cinderellas.

Anybody can predict the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting up in the NBA Finals once again or another Super Bowl appearance from Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

But who could’ve expected a small Catholic school with no star players and a 98-year-old nun as a good luck charm to make it so far? Maybe Sister Jean herself could have predicted it, but that might be the only exception.

Of course, the Blue Bloods such as Villanova and Kansas are still dancing and will be considered the heavy favorites. But Loyola-Chicago has done something not many can say they have done. They’ve given the little guys hope. They’ve made everybody question their own judgement. They’ve captured the attention of billions of fans.

Maybe the Ramblers have come along at the exact right time for college basketball. In a time when many fans are demanding more parity and unpredictability from their sports, Loyola-Chicago has given the NCAA just that.

At the end of The Blues Brothers, Jake, Elwood and their band put on a show and earn enough money to save the boarding school. On the lam from the state police, who are hot on their tail, the brothers still have to get the money to the Assessor’s Office.

Elwood puts their situation as such.

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Despite being embroiled in a high-speed chase with hundreds of cops, they somehow make it. As they hand in the money, they’re surrounded by hundreds of police rifles.

But they still completed their mission.

Whether or not those hundreds of rifles come in the form of Mo Wagner and the Michigan Wolverines in the Final Four has yet to be seen for Loyola-Chicago. 

Their off the metaphorical stage, they’ve put on their show and now is where the real challenge begins. Luckily for them, they’ve got all the momentum and seemingly destiny on their side. 

San Antonio may be much more than 106 miles from Chicago but they’ve got more than a full tank of gas and Sister Jean just might be wearing sunglasses at night. 

Expect anything at this point.

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