It’s the final week of March Madness, and I’m here to officially attempt to convince you, the reader, to cheer for one of the underdogs. One of those teams is Loyola Chicago, the No. 11 seed little-engine-that-could that somehow has delivered shock and awe by defeating college basketball Goliaths. The other, believe it or not, is No. 1 seed Kansas. This rests on a hope for two teams who are underdogs in their own right, and on the possibility of a dream come true for two players who grew up in my hometown.
Let’s start with the easier sell. There is, quite honestly, nothing to dislike about Loyola Chicago. They won their first three rounds of NCAA tournament play in breathtaking fashion by sinking back-to-back-to-back buzzer-beaters for three victories by 2 points or fewer. The Ramblers fulfill every hope of a Cinderella story: They’re scrappy and full of heart, playing aggressive and clean basketball that is right to terrify even the most stacked top seed in the tourney.
And of course, they’ve got a patron saint in Sister Jean, the 98-year-old chaplain of the basketball team who offers blessings and scouting reports before every game.
“Don’t let those Tennessee team members scare you with their height,” she told the team before their second-round game. “Height doesn’t mean that much. You’re good jumpers. You’re good rebounders. You’re good at everything.”
The university sold out, restocked and then sold out again in preorders of bobbleheads of Sister Jean, and her message “We’re on a mission from God” has become one of the best catchphrases of this March. It’s hard to imagine an underdog that’s more inspiring or more fun to watch.
The Jayhawks are a different story. They have pedigree and five-star recruits, including a colossal big man in seven-footer Udoke Azubuike and the unanimous Big 12 Player of the Year in Devonte’ Graham. Add in Malik Newman, the unanimous Big 12 Newcomer of the Year who put up 32 points in an overtime classic against Duke on Sunday, and it’s pretty hard to imagine how this team isn’t privileged with a wealth of talent.
But if there were ever a Kansas team coached by NCAA Hall of Famer Bill Self that could be called an underdog, this is it.
After last season, when the Jayhawks lost Frank Mason — the all-around player of the year who snagged every top honor, including the Naismith and Wooden awards — this team entered a bit of a flux. It dropped early losses to teams like Washington and allowed a series of home losses at Allen Fieldhouse, a court where Self never loses. After winning 13 straight conference titles, most sportswriters predicted that this would be the team that finally broke the streak.
“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self said in December. “A lot of that is experience. A lot of that is youth. A lot of it is just the way that we’re physically built and the way our skill set is. But the bottom line is we’ve got to become tougher.”
I’ve been a Kansas fan for most of my life, so I know that I risk sounding like a serious homer. But after a season of taking heat, this Kansas team has the heart and mentality of an underdog, especially when led by the smiley Graham, whom Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski described as one of the best leaders in the country. If you’re picking between two No. 1 seeds, I can’t see how you wouldn’t pick Kansas based on heart alone.
The best reason to cheer for both of those teams rests in the possibility for a storybook ending to this tournament. That storyline rests partially on the idea of the Ramblers becoming the lowest ranked seed ever to cut down the nets at the national championship, and in the rush of defeating a No. 1 seed along the way. If Loyola Chicago wins, however, that will happen anyway, regardless of whether it faces Villanova or Kansas.
But if Kansas advances, something even sweeter will happen for both teams. That brings us to two Ramblers players, boys whom I watched play ball in high school and whom I’ll cheer for next Saturday — and hopefully next Monday.
Loyola guards redshirt junior Clayton Custer and senior Ben Richardson grew up in Overland Park, Kan., and starred at Blue Valley Northwest, the high school 20 minutes north of mine that we played twice a year. Like most of the kids in my area, they grew up as Kansas basketball fans, raised on the 2008 NCAA championship game. The pair lived on the same street, and they spent hours re-enacting the same play that every Kansas kid memorized — Mario and the Miracle, the pass from Sherron Collins to Mario Chalmers, the buzzer-beater with 3.6 seconds left.
They’ve both lived out their own versions of miracles this tournament — Richardson with the pass for the game-winner over Miami, Custer with the perfect banked shot to defeat Tennessee. But a chance to repeat the magic against their childhood team? I can’t imagine a better way for this tournament to end.
Every year, March offers a story to hook in neutral fans, the ones whose brackets are busted and whose teams are eliminated before the end of the road. This year, I hope this is a story that every fan can cheer for — two underdog kids facing the team that taught them to love the game on its biggest stage.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Tuesdays.