Mar 17, 2021 14 min read

The 10 best March Madness runs for Chicago-area universities

The 10 best March Madness runs for Chicago-area universities

Let's take a look at the best postseason runs in men's basketball by Illinois schools (plus Notre Dame, and including the NIT when it was the top tournament in the world). Without any further ado or qualifications, here are the top 10 (plus an extra for the top scorer in NCAA men's hoops history):

1. Loyola changes the game — 1963

While the University of Illinois is typically held up as the best men's basketball program in the state, and DePaul is generally regarded as the favorite son in Chicago, neither school owns an NCAA men's basketball championship. While it is true that DePaul won the NIT in 1945 when it was the top national tournament, only one school from the state of Illinois has ever won an NCAA men's basketball title.

Loyola.

In 1963, the Ramblers overcame a 15-point deficit to beat top-ranked Cincinnati in the final, 60-58 in overtime. Jerry Harkness hit a tying jumper with scant seconds left in regulation, and Vic Rouse's tip-in at the buzzer in OT famously won it for Loyola.

If that year — 1963 — sets off any bells regarding the concurrent Civil Rights Movement in the United States, it definitely was a factor. Loyola fielded a team with four Black starters, which went against convention at the time for most teams even in the north, whose coaches tended to respect a gentleman's agreement to limit non-white participation.

Loyola and coach George Ireland didn't play those games.

From a different point of view, neither did Loyola's second-round opponent, Mississippi State, which in '63 came from a conference, the SEC, that had no Black players at any school in any sport. Mississippi State as conference champ, in fact, had turned down two previous NCAA Tournament invitations because school officials feared having to play a team with Black players at some point.

By '63, MSU players and coach Babe McCarthy got tired of this policy and wanted a chance to prove themselves against everybody. This is the white team. Backed by the school president, the players vowed to play anyone no matter what. After several legal moves that included a state Supreme Court ruling, along with actual "cloak-and-dagger" misdirection ops at the Starkville airport involving a team of decoys, Mississippi State made it to the tournament location in East Lansing, Mich.

Before Texas Western vs. Kentucky — even before the Ramblers could win the championship in '63 — there was Mississippi State vs. Loyola. It would come to be known as The Game of Change.

Mississippi State had a first-round bye and presumably watched Loyola dismantle Tennessee Tech by 69 points in its opening game, a margin that still stands as a tournament record. When MSU and Loyola met each other on the floor, the atmosphere was friendly among the players. Pregame handshakes abounded. Despite reasonable apprehensions, the atmosphere was merely competitive. And Loyola won by 10 points. The Ramblers advanced to the Final Four by beating Illinois by 15 points. In the semifinals the Ramblers beat Duke by 19 before taking down Cincy.

2. Bill Self's Illini coached by Bruce Weber — 2005

It finally came together for Illinois, which survived a big deficit late against Arizona in an all-time classic regional final to reach the Final Four and, one game later, the 2005 NCAA men's basketball title game.

Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head formed a devastating triumvirate at guard, tormenting opponents with a combination of athleticism, ball movement and outside shooting that led Illinois to a 29-0 start. Rebounding from a one-point loss at Ohio State in the regular-season finale, the Illini swept the Big Ten tournament and entered the NCAAs as the top-ranked team in the AP poll. Illinois started with three comfortable victories — winning by 12 against Fairleigh Dickenson, by 12 against Nevada, and by 14 against Milwaukee — before facing coach Lute Olson and Arizona.

More or less hosting the game in front of mostly their own fans at Rosemont's Allstate Arena, the Illini squandered a small lead in the second half, and Arizona appeared to take complete control, leading by as many as 15, and 77-63 with just under 3 1/2 minutes remaining.

Head calmly hit a three to start Illinois on its way back, and converted a steal into a layup with 1:22 left to energize the home crowd and bring Illinois within seven points. With the clock ticking under a minute, Head hit another three to draw Illinois within five points. Another turnover preceded a Dee Brown layup, and Arizona's lead was down to three points with 45 seconds left. Illinois stole the subsequence inbound pass and tapped the ball to Williams, who dribbled and set himself for a tying three-pointer with 39 seconds to go.

Neither team scored again until Illinois hit a three about 45 seconds into overtime. The Illini opened a six point lead in the final 95 seconds and held on, surviving a last-second shot attempt to win 90-89. Phew! Arizona assistant Josh Pastner said later that the Wildcats "blew it," and Illinois' comeback doesn't happen with Arizona's help. You still have to hand it to Illinois. What a comeback.

The Final Four itself might have seemed like a weekend off. Illinois handled Louisville easily in the semis, winning by 15, to set up a meeting in the final against Sean May and North Carolina. Illinois' magical season ended short of a championship, with the Tar Heels winning a rugged 75-70 final.

3. Loyola and Sister Jean go for a long ride — 2018

The most recent local Final Four run came with Loyola as an 11-seed in 2018, when the Ramblers were making their first NCAA appearance since 1985. And when you think of Loyola's run, you have to think of The Nun.

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the team's 98-year-old chaplain and superfan, became a national star when the Ramblers beat Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State to reach Loyola's first Final Four since 1963. It was routine for reporters to seek her reaction immediately after each game. And why not?!

Three times in the final seconds in each of their first three Tournament games, the Ramblers hit the final shot to send themselves to the next round. But Loyola looked like they weren't going to advance anywhere in the late stages of their tournament opener.

• The Ramblers trailed by a point with Miami at the free-throw line and 9.3 seconds remaining. Lonnie Walker IV missed the first half of a one-and-one and Loyala's Ben Richardson corralled the rebound as the clock started to tick. Loyola advanced the ball to the front court and, ignoring the time out in their pocket, seemed to be running out of time until teammate Marques Townes found Ingram way beyond the three-point arc. Ingram let fly from about 27 feet for a three-point swish swish and a 64-62 lead. After a timeout, Miami could not get off a shot in the three-tenths of a second left, and Loyola advanced.

• Loyola led from late in the first half until very late in the second, but Tennessee hung around and took a one-point lead on a free throw with 20.1 seconds left. After a timeout, Clayton Custer put up an off-balance jumper from medium range that got a friendly bounce before falling in for a 63-62 lead. The Ramblers withstood Tennessee missing a three from the top of the key as the buzzer sounded for the Sweet 16 berth.

• Each team led by as many as 12, but Loyola nursed a one-point lead with the clock ticking under 10 seconds when Townes took a dribble and hit a dagger three-pointer from the corner. Nevada responded with a three of its own, but ran out of time. Loyola won 69-68 to reach the Elite Eight.

• Sister Jean did it! She made the Final Four, the first such appearance for the Ramblers since the 1963 NCAA championship. Loyola played perhaps its most complete game of the year, beating Kansas State 78-62 in the Elite Eight to tie for the lowest seed to ever reach the Final Four.

• The big moment didn't seem too big for the Ramblers. At first. Loyola led Michigan by 10 points in the second half but the Wolverines put on a push to pull away and reach the Final Four with a 69-57 win that ended Loyola's dream season.

4. Ray Meyer and DePaul find their way back — 1979

By the mid-1970s, a decade of mediocrity gave way to better recruiting classes and tougher scheduling for DePaul, and the results showed on the floor. DePaul reached the NCAA Tournament again in 1976 for the first time in 11 years, and was on the verge of having the most success in program history since the 1945 NIT championship.

With freshman Mark Aguirre leading what had become the most popular basketball team in town, the Demons got over the hump in '79 after falling in the regional final to Notre Dame the year before. After a first-round bye, the Demons beat USC by 11 points, regional rival Marquette by six and top-ranked UCLA (with Kiki Vandeweghe and David Greenwood) by four. Coach Ray had reached his first NCAA Final Four (as we know it today) in his fourth decade as DePaul coach.

In another classic matchup, Indiana State with Larry Bird beat DePaul in the national semis 76-74. Bird shot 16 of 19 from the field and Indiana State shot 62.5 percent overall, overcoming 22 turnovers (including 11 by Bird). All five DePaul starters — Aguirre, Gary Garland, Curtis Watkins, Clyde Bradshaw and James Mitchem — all played 40 minutes apiece.

DePaul became the top hoops attraction in Chicago, with the very good Bulls teams of the early '70s having gone gray, and the Michael Jordan dynasty still five years away. Meyer's legacy as a great coach on a national level had been reaffirmed, even though DePaul's subsequent NCAA Tournament teams suffered hellacious opening-game disappointments for the next three years.

5. Flying Illini take off for Final Four — 1989

Illinois teams in the '80s almost always made the NCAA Tournament, but  the narrative almost always told the story of untapped potential and missed opportunities. The squad with sophomores Efrem Winters, Bruce Douglas and Doug Altenberger that fell one win short of the '84 Final Four in a three-point loss to Kentucky, and later teams never got further than the Sweet 16. The '87 squad, led by Ken Norman with an impressive freshman class that scored a No. 3 seed, somehow lost by a point to No. 14 Austin Peay in one of the all-time Tournament upsets.

The '89 team, filled with hyper-athletic players mostly from the Chicago area, dismissed those disappointments and performed with a vigor and athleticism that looked more like an NBA squad than college. Kenny Battle dunked like it was a contest every night. Nick Anderson could score from anywhere. Kendall Gill made it all work as the point guard and team MVP. Steve Bardo was the lockdown defender. Lowell Hamilton could score on the blocks and Marcus Liberty put in points and grabbed rebounds off the bench.

They started the regular season 16-0, ultimately coming from 16 down at home to beat Georgia Tech in a double-overtime game that was televised nationally with Keith Jackson and Dick Vitale on the call. Vitale coined, or at least helped to promote, the team's appropriate "Flying Illini" moniker. Gill sustained a broken foot in the game, which caused lots of problems for a while but Illinois regained some of its magic in a late-season game at Indiana. Anderson's improbable three-pointer broke a tie at the buzzer and sent Vitale to the moon.

Illinois went on a roll from there, winning 10 straight, including NCAA Tournament games as the top seed in the Midwest against McNeese St., Ball State, Louisville and Syracuse. But an old rival was waiting in the wings once Illinois reached its first Final Four since 1952.

Easily the worst thing to happen to Illinois that season was Michigan firing coach Bill Frieder. Unable to agree with athletic director Bo Schembechler on his own value to the program, Frieder quietly accepted the head coach job at Arizona State just before the NCAAs began. Frieder intended to finish Michigan's season, but when he announced he was leaving at the end of the season, Schembechler said, "No you're not," fired him on the spot and replaced him with assistant Steve Fisher.

Led by Glen Rice, Michigan was absolutely loaded with talent, but they also were underachievers. Illinois handily beat them twice during the regular season, including the last day. But once Fisher took over, things were different.

Michigan won its first four in the NCAAs to reach the Final Four. Kenny Battle did what he could in the national semis, putting down 29 points, including two on a friendly rim that dropped in and tied the score with 33 seconds left. Illinois played great defense in the final sequence, forcing Terry Mills to take a bad shot from behind the arc, but Anderson didn't box out Sean Higgins, who leaped over him for a rebound and put-back with one second left.

Illinois' last prayer wasn't answered, and one of the coolest basketball seasons ever was over. Michigan won 83-81 and later beat Seton Hall in the final.

6. DePaul brings home the hardware — 1945

The preeminent postseason basketball tournament in 1945 was not the NCAAs but the NIT. And DePaul won it. And not just won, they steamrolled their opponents, with senior George Mikan dominating at center, in three games. Yes, the NIT was only eight teams deep and three games long for those who advanced to the "Final Four." But the NIT typically had more nationally ranked teams than the NCAA's tournament, which didn't get its act together until the early 1950s.

DePaul beat West Virginia 76-52, Rhode Island 97-53, and Bowling Green (Ohio) 71-54 for the title.

Another point worth nothing about major college basketball in 1945: It had very few Black players, and the postseason tournaments were not yet integrated.

7. Gambling scandal mars Bradley's double run — 1950

How's this for March Madness: Bradley in 1950 not only made it to the NIT finals at Madison Square Garden, where the Braves lost to City College of New York, but five days later they also entered the NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden, where they lost in the finals to CCNY again! In those days (but not after 1950) teams could enter both tournaments. What an exhilarating but doubly disappointing ride for Bradley.

The Braves would take another kind of ride — a ride downtown — in the ensuing 18 months, when an infamous point-shaving scandal upended the college basketball world. While the scandal gets attached primarily to New York City, Bradley (and Adolph Rupp's Kentucky squad, funny enough) had players who were shown to have taken money from gamblers. It was said the bribes were for players not to lose games but instead to win by "the right amount" of points so bettors could beat the spread. The scandal, which included games in the 1949-50 season and earlier, ensnared Bradley's best player, Gene “Squeaky” Melchiorre, who said he took money but never shaved points. When his involvement was discovered, it cost Melchiorre an NBA career; he is the only No. 1 overall pick in NBA history to never play in the league.

The scandal also wrecked what had been a feel-great story for CCNY and college basketball in NYC, which has never been as successful or popular as it was in the 1940s and early '50s. And it ruined professional opportunities and soiled reputations for other players.

The scandal's long-term effect on the Bradley program is less obvious. The Braves went back to the NCAA final in 1954, made the NCAAs again in '55 and won the NIT in 1957 and 1960. By the late 1950s, the NCAA Tournament had supplanted the NIT as the preeminent postseason basketball event in the sport. Bradley periodically gained berths in the NIT throughout the '60s, but didn't get back to the NCAAs until Dick Versace coached the Braves in the 1980s.

8. Irish eyes smilin' at Digger's Final Four berth — 1978

Notre Dame men's basketball isn't much of a Chicago-area team these days, but times were different in the '70s and '80s when Digger Phelps was the coach. He came to Notre Dame in 1971, just as scoring machine Austin Carr left for the NBA, and the Irish lost 20 games. By his third season, Phelps' teams were starting an eight-year NCAA Tournament streak. The zenith came in 1978, when Notre Dame reached the Final Four with a roster that included eight future NBA players — notably Kelly Tripucka and Bill Laimbeer.

The Irish crushed Houston in the first round, pulled away in the second half to beat Utah in the second round, and beat another revived Catholic school program — DePaul, in Dave Corzine's senior season — by 20 points in the Midwest Regional Final.

In the Final Four, the Irish played Bill Foster's Duke squad, with Gene Banks and Mike Gminski, a precursor to the Mike Krzyzewski era soon to come. Duke owned a 14-point lead in the first half, but Notre Dame cut the deficit to two points and had the ball after a Duke turnover with under 20 seconds left in regulation. Duck Williams missed a long jumper and Notre Dame had missed its best chance to tie. Duke won 90-86 before falling to Kentucky in the final. Notre Dame reached the Midwest Region Final again a year later, but Michigan State with Magic Johnson denied them another Final Four.

EXTRA! Irish star Austin Carr scores points by the truckload — 1970

The greatest individual NCAA Tournament performance for a Chicago or adjacent player obviously was Austin Carr, who scored 61 points in Notre Dame's 112-82 opening-round victory against Ohio in 1970. Carr shot 25 of 44 from the field, 11 of 14 from the line, and committed just one turnover. In Notre Dame's next game, against Kentucky, Carr scored 52 more, shooting 22 of 35 from the field and 8 of 8 from the line. The Irish lost, however, 109-99. There was some scoring in this era of college basketball.

You know what else there was? Lots of third-place games, because apparently these Boomers all needed participation trophies. But that's OK, because it gave Carr a chance to score 45 more points in a 121-106 loss to Iowa. (Just imagine Bobby Knight watching these high scores unfold while coaching at Army. He'll have his say soon enough about tough man-to-man defense.)

As a senior in 1971, Carr scored 52 points, 26 (in an overtime loss to Drake) and 47 in three tournament games for the Irish.

Carr averaged 34.6 points over 74 games in his college career, which still stands second all-time after Pete Maravich's 44.4. The Cleveland Cavaliers took Carr first overall in the '71 NBA Draft.

9. Illini make Elite run — 2001

Since the NCAAs increased to a 64-team tournament in 1985, the longest run by any local team that stopped short of the Final Four was Illinois in 2001. It came in Bill Self's first season, and he coached players who were recruited mostly by his predecessor, Lon Kruger. Sophomore guard Frank Williams won Big Ten Player of the Year, and the Illini had a lot of depth, including Marcus Griffin, Cory Bradford and Brian Cook, in winning the regular-season conference title.

Illinois stumbled in the conference tournament but got hot again in the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed in their region, downing Northwestern (La.) State by 42, Charlotte by 18 and Kansas by 16 in the Sweet 16. With the Final Four at stake at the Alamodome, the Illini fell to Arizona 87-81 as six of their players fouled out. Arizona, led by Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner, Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson, made 43 of 56 free throws to foil what would be Self's best chance for a Final Four with Illinois.

10. Red Kerr and Illinois advance to first NCAA "Final Four" — 1952

Fighting Illini men's basketball history gets substantive starting in 1949-1952, when Illinois reached the "Final Four" (which wasn't called that yet) three times in four years. And not until '52, when the tournament included 16 teams, included regional TV coverage, and the national semifinals and final took place at the same arena, did it really become anything like the Final Four we know now. Before '52, your team could lose in one of the two "regional finals," which meant your team was among the final four in the tournament, yet "win" the prize of traveling to another city to play a third-place game! Illinois did this in 1949 and 1951.

The '52 Illini, led by Chicago sports legend Johnny "Red'' Kerr in his first collegiate season, went 22-4 and fell to St. John's in the national semis at Seattle's Hec Edmonson Pavilion, which still stands today. The next day in the same building (thank goodness), Illinois beat Santa Clara in the third-place game.

Note: The '52 Illini had another frosh named Max Hooper, which might be the perfect basketball player name.

Longtime Chicago guy. A professional writer and editor since 1998. Member of Baseball Writers Association of America since 2013.

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