There is something strangely familiar about Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four.
Former Gonzaga assistant coach Ray Giacoletti could see the similarities between the NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. He remembers a GU team that was once like the Ramblers – nearly invisible to the college basketball world for most of the school’s existence.
Giacoletti became more familiar with the Gonzaga program in 1999, when most of the country hadn’t heard of the small, private school at the center of Spokane.
“I didn’t even know how to pronounce it then,” Giacoletti said. “I saw it on their chests and was like, ‘Is it Gon-zaw-guh?’ ”
The Zags made their name known with a historic run to the Elite Eight in 1999. Giacoletti was coaching men’s basketball at North Dakota State at the time. About a year later, he took the head coaching job at Eastern Washington and watched Gonzaga’s new head coach Mark Few take the program by storm.
In 2007, Giacoletti watched the program progress from the sidelines inside The Kennel. He took an assistant coaching job on Few’s staff until 2013, when he became the head coach at Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference until he resigned midway through the 2016-2017 season.
Since leaving Spokane, Giacoletti, who is now attempting a career in broadcast, has kept tabs on the Zags and their annual fight through the NCAA Tournament. He was in Glendale, Arizona, with Few last year to watch the Zags write what so many referred to as the Cinderella story of 2017, in which the Zags finally made it full circle with a Final Four appearance before falling to North Carolina in the championship.
“Every year there’s somebody like that, and to me that’s what makes all this so exciting,” Giacoletti said. “It’s the little guy against the big guy for 40 minutes and anything can happen.”
This year’s little guy happens to be a team Giacoletti knows well. While at Drake, he coached against Loyola-Chicago in conference play and watched Ramblers coach Porter Moser reshape a program in a way that is similar to what Few did with the Zags.
This year, Moser’s efforts were rewarded with a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title and ticket to the Big Dance, the first time the Ramblers have appeared in the tournament since 1985 when they made it all the way to the Sweet 16.
They had their first run in the tournament in 1963 when they went on to win the whole thing. They returned to the madness the following year and went to the Sweet 16 – their last tournament showing until ’85.
This year, the 11th-seeded Ramblers defeated No. 6 Florida, No. 3 Tennessee, No. 7 Nevada and No. 9 Kansas State to have a date with No. 3 Michigan in the semifinal on Saturday. They are just the fourth 11th seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Final Four.
The Ramblers’ run this season has rightfully made them the new Cinderella, although Giacoletti would argue Loyola deserves the label much more than the Zags did last year.
“They’re totally different – Gonzaga had been working 20 years to get over that last hurdle. This came out of the blue,” he said. “Loyola, it’s just lightning in a bottle and had a heckuva a two-week period now. And where does it go from here?”
Loyola’s run hasn’t been favored by the networks televising the tournament. Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, was blunt about the midmajor teams and their impact on ratings when he appeared on the Chris Russo’s Sirius XM radio show Mad Dog Unleashed on March 23.
“From a television standpoint, you really root for the big teams,” he said to Russo.
McManus said matchups like Kentucky’s loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 “was not good for us and not good for TBS at all. Kentucky being the blue bloods they are and having the television draw that they have, that really hurt us.”
He went on to say that Loyola’s big run is “a great story,” but isn’t ideal for overall ratings.
“… To have an upstart like that go this far is not a disaster, obviously, but not the best of all scenarios for us,” he said.
Giacoletti argued that it’s up to the midmajor teams to turn the tides, and it starts with having Loyola-styled confidence against the blue bloods of college basketball and the power-five teams in March.
“It’s a mentality across college basketball, like now you have a 16 beating a 1. I would have bet my life that day that no way,” Giacoletti said. “But anything’s possible with the runs that the (George) Masons, the Wichita States have had. Gonzaga’s a prime example, and now Loyola.”
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