SAN ANTONIO – Loyola-Chicago’s team plane pulled into a private hangar, and the players were serenaded by a brass band playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” while they walked a festive carpet to a team bus emblazoned with their logo and colors.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers sure looked like they belonged when they rolled into San Antonio in style for the Final Four.
Several hours later, the excitement still hadn’t worn off when the biggest underdogs in recent NCAA Tournament history joined powerhouses Kansas, Villanova and Michigan at the Alamodome on Thursday morning for the four teams’ first workouts before Saturday’s semifinals.
“We dreamed of getting to this moment, and now we’re here,” said Loyola-Chicago senior Aundre Jackson, a native Texan. “It’s a challenge to deal with all of this, but I think we deserve the attention. We’ve worked really hard for it.”
The teams and their legions of fans arrived in a downtown decked out in vibrant colors, with the Final Four logo plastered on most available surfaces from the River Walk to the Alamo. The players even had brightly colored socks on their chairs in their locker rooms – and several Loyola players had already pulled on their new gear moments after they arrived.
“We love it. It’s all hype,” Ramblers guard Adarius Avery said. “I feel like we have a lot of confidence, even though it’s our first time doing anything like this.”
The unlikely Ramblers are downright dazzled by the Final Four festivities, but it’s also a new experience for the players at Kansas, which hadn’t made it since 2012, and Michigan, which was last here in 2013.
Jayhawks star Devonte Graham did a double take when he saw larger-than-life photos of himself and several teammates lining the Alamodome hallway outside the Kansas locker room.
“Yeah, OK, I took some pictures of it,” Graham said with a laugh.
Several Villanova players already won it all in Texas two years ago when they watched Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to down North Carolina. The media obligations, fan frenzy and difficult game preparations are nothing new to Jalen Brunson, the junior guard named the AP’s Player of the Year on Thursday.
“I think it’s definitely an advantage for us that we’ve been through it before,” Brunson said. “But we still have to go through it. There’s going to be a lot of things going on in the next couple of days, but I’m enjoying it because I’m out here with my brothers and getting to be in this moment.”
Villanova’s flight encountered turbulence on its descent into Texas, but Mikal Bridges calmed nervous flyer Eric Paschall. The Wildcats can cement their status as a modern college basketball power with their second title in three years, but a showdown with the powerful Jayhawks looms.
The Wolverines realize most of the country will be rooting against them when they take on Loyola, but that doesn’t detract from the excitement – and it certainly won’t matter to the large crush of maize-and-blue fans expected to invade the Alamodome after an outstanding turnout in Los Angeles last week.
“We got in late and we got up early,” said Moe Wagner, Michigan’s high-scoring German big man. “It’s been pretty busy since we got in. A lot of talking and running around. But like I always say, it beats the alternative. It’s surreal, but it’s a great opportunity, and these people in this locker room are the best guys to share it with.”
The next few days will be surreal for every player – but particularly for Loyola-Chicago, it seems.
When the Ramblers reached their team hotel, they got another thrill from a brief visit with Russell Westbrook. The NBA MVP is in town with the Oklahoma City Thunder to face the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.
“I was standing next to him, trying to see how tall I was,” said Jackson, who got a photo with the UCLA product. “He just (said), ‘Good luck and go ahead and win it.’”
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