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Loyola-Chicago is saving Illinois from being a college basketball wasteland

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While Illinois, DePaul, and Northwestern flounder, Loyola-Chicago found a way to capture the Second City’s heart.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Tennessee vs Loyola Chicago Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody questions the city of Chicago’s place near the top of America’s basketball totem pole. The Bulls are as synonymous with the NBA as any franchise in existence, and the Chicago area has churned out as much talent as anyone since the dawn of recruiting high school players.

This has begged a recurring question for the better part of the last three decades: Why isn’t there a national powerhouse college basketball team from Chicago?

A quick look at the performances of the programs who fit the description typically results in a second, more befuddling question: Why are all the college basketball teams from Chicago bad?

Jahlil Okafor, Jalen Brunson, Cliff Alexander, Jabari Parker, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Tyler Ulis, Ryan Boatright, Chasson Randle, Fred VanVleet, Evan Turner. All of these players have two things in common: They were all high school stars in the Chicago area within the past decade, and they all chose to become college stars outside the state of Illinois.

Championship-level success starts with recruiting, and yet the schools encircling America’s hottest bed of future NBA talent aren’t just failing to thrive, they’ve created something resembling a college hoops wasteland.

DePaul, the school that would seemingly stand to gain the most from its proximity to Chicago’s seemingly limitless supply of basketball talent, is a national punchline. The Blue Demons have won precisely one game in the NCAA tournament since 1989, and have finished last in the Big East in eight of the last 10 years. The program has had 11 consecutive losing seasons, it has lost at least 19 games in each of those 11 seasons, it has an .188 winning percentage in Big East play, and it just walked into a brand new, state of the art $82.3 million arena.

Illinois had a nice run under Bruce Weber at the start of the century, one which included a trip to the national championship game in 2005, but there hasn’t been much to talk about since then. The Illini haven’t heard their name called on Selection Sunday since 2013, and haven’t made it through to the tournament’s second weekend since that run to the title game in ‘05. The John Groce era was a disaster, with local high school and AAU coaches immediately saying they wouldn’t send their kids to play for him. Most followed through with that promise, and Groce failed to produce a single winning season in Big Ten play before he was fired in 2017. Hopes are high that Brad Underwood is the right man for the gig, but his era began with a 14-18 campaign that featured just four league wins.

Northwestern’s history, or lack thereof, is well-known. The Wildcats had never been to the NCAA tournament before 2017, when they knocked off Vanderbilt in round one before falling to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga. The program regressed to the mean in 2017-18, beginning the year with a top-25 national ranking and finishing it with a 15-17 overall record. Despite being a charter member of the conference, Northwestern has finished third or better in the final Big Ten standings just twice since the end of World War II, and those finished happened in 1959 and 1960.

Chicagoans are willing to stick it out with a loser, but only if it’s the Cubs. And that’s only because they were born with that patience in their DNA (a trait the next generation of Second City youngsters are unlikely to inherit).

The state of Illinois hasn’t had much to be excited about in March for a long time, which is why it has largely ignored the sport of college basketball for the past decade. They haven’t been paying attention because there hasn’t been anything worth paying attention to.

Until now.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola University Celebration Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Just as it has with the rest of the country, Loyola-Chicago has captured the hearts and minds of Chicago in a way no college team has since Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams were flirting with perfection.

After Loyola punched its stunning ticket to the Final Four (ironically with a win over a Kansas State team coached by the same Bruce Weber who directed that 2004-05 Illinois squad), Chicago lit up its skyline with maroon and gold lights to pay tribute to the Ramblers. It was a sight that Loyola head coach Porter Moser, a Naperville native, never thought he’d see.

“Chicago has always been known as a pro town,” Moser said during Monday’s Final Four conference call. “It’s not a pro town, it’s a sports town, and they love winning teams. They love passionate, prideful, hardworking teams, and they’ve gotten behind us.”

The fact the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks are nearing the ends of disappointing seasons has likely made the furor surrounding the Ramblers’ run even greater than it would have been otherwise. Bars that would typically be full of Opening Day chatter about the Cubs and White Sox have turned into game watch locations for newfound Loyola fans.

The madness has engulfed all of the city’s biggest figures.

Loyola, as the schools alums are quick to point out, is already the only program in the state of Illinois that has ever won the NCAA tournament. Even with that 1963 national title in tow, there’s no debate that the Ramblers fit the modern profile of a Cinderella. They play in the Missouri Valley, a decidedly mid-major conference, and this is their first appearance in the Big Dance since 1985.

The extended March Madness absence for Loyola is much easier to justify than the lengthy periods of futility put forth by the power conference programs in the area. Nobody expected Anthony Davis or Derrick Rose to become a Rambler. The school doesn’t have facilities in any way resemble what you would see at Illinois or DePaul. Before 2013-14, Loyola was a member of the Horizon League, a league that sits a notch or five below the Missouri Valley in the D-I hierarchy.

And yet, Loyola has won more NCAA tournament games in 14 days than Illinois, DePaul and Northwestern have won combined over the past 12 years. The four tournament victories are more than Illinois has won since its run to the 2005 title game, more than DePaul has won over the last 31 years, and four times as many as Northwestern has won in the history of its program.

The other schools can lay claim to superior facilities, bigger fan bases and better conference affiliations, but as it stands right now, Loyola is the king of college basketball in Chicago.