As Marques Townes begins talking about Loyola Chicago’s loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament semifinal, he grimaces. It’s still a painful memory. He reaches down and clinches his left quad with both hands to demonstrate the way his leg seized up in the second half of the game, rubbing them back in forth just like the team’s trainer had done in an attempt to stretch out the muscle. The Ramblers were ahead when the cramps hit, he reminds me, a 10-point lead mere minutes away from a spot in the national championship game.
“I kind of felt like I let...” he says, voice trailing off. His face expresses what words cannot. He gathers himself. “I still feel like if I didn’t catch cramps, we’d have [had] a better chance to win.”
History will not remember Townes cramping. If last season’s Ramblers are remembered for anything, it will be for winning. Setting the school record for number of wins, capturing their first Missouri Valley Conference championship and making a miraculous run to the Final Four. Townes was firmly at the center of the madness, finishing second on the team in scoring and hitting the game-sealing three to beat Nevada in the final seconds of their Sweet 16 matchup.
He talks about that moment casually, describing the shot that will live in NCAA Tournament history forever. “Clay [Custer] passed me the ball real quick, I just side-stepped and shot it because it was the end of the shot clock. It was just instinct,” Townes says matter-of-factly. “As soon as it left my hand I was like, that’s in.”
On Tuesday the teams will meet again in Gentile Arena as part of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge. The Wolf Pack, now ranked No. 6 in the country, seek vengeance for last year’s improbable tournament defeat. The memory of Townes’ shot will be fresh in the minds of their three returning starters. But Townes, a 23-year-old senior, doesn’t feel the need to be the hero this time. In many ways he is the quintessential Loyola Rambler, an embodiment of the culture Porter Moser has created within the program since taking over as head coach in 2011. Process over results, team over self. And above all else, Townes just wins.
“I’m telling you, every team he played on they won championships,” says Bryant Townes of his son’s childhood. Whether it was basketball, baseball, football or karate, it seemed young Marques, or “Marco El Farco” as his father called him, always came out on top.
In high school, Townes was a member of one of the greatest teams in New Jersey prep basketball history at St. Joseph Metuchen, transferring in with his close friend Wade Baldwin to play two seasons alongside local phenom Karl-Anthony Towns. A pair of New Jersey State Non-Public A championships followed, and as seniors they capped off a 30-2 season with the school’s first New Jersey Tournament of Champions title.
Towns went on to the University of Kentucky, and a year later the Minnesota Timberwolves took him first overall in the NBA Draft. Baldwin chose Vanderbilt and became the Grizzlies’ first round draft selection within two seasons. But Townes more than held his own on that St. Joseph’s team. He finished his career with 1,863 points, the second most in school history behind only Duke legend and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams.
“Oh yeah, Marques was the No. 1 option on offense, like he was unbelievable in high school,” says Breein Tyree, Townes’ teammate at St. Joseph and now a junior guard at Ole Miss. “He was almost, not LeBron James but that’s kind of how he played, just being able to outmuscle people getting to the rim.”
Townes stands 6-foot-4 and barrel-chested, too strong for many opposing guards and simultaneously too quick for forwards. Within Loyola’s system, he’s an archetype for Moser’s multifunctional “mismatch guy.” But in high school, Townes possessed the type of physique that caused the football coach at St. Joseph to take one look at him and say, “We’ve got to get that kid in pads.”
It was a refrain Townes heard all his life. He played football growing up, and even had fond memories on the gridiron dominating the Pop Warner leagues as a hulking 5-foot-10 sixth-grader. He gave it up entering high school to pursue basketball at the next level, and many of the better mid-major schools in the country were recruiting him at St. Joseph. But when Tyree, the football team’s quarterback, approached him about giving football another chance as a senior, Townes relented.
“I didn’t want to have no regrets, because I missed football,” he says. “It just came naturally to me.”
The St. Joseph football team began winning, of course, posting an undefeated regular season and making a deep playoff run. Suddenly Townes was a hot running back and linebacker prospect, attracting interest from major conference football programs such as Rutgers, Maryland, Syracuse and Penn State. That fall he took a recruiting trip to Happy Valley.
“He had a lot of people in his ear saying he’s a big time football player,” recalls Bryant Townes. “I think if he had got that scholarship from Penn State he probably would be playing football.”
Townes was never one to make impulse decisions. He spent the fall going from football practice in the afternoon to the gym, where he’d put up jumpers late into the evening. While he weighed his options, basketball offers disappeared. Schools began calling to say they had filled their commitments and no longer wanted him.
The high school hoops season started with Townes still carrying his football weight, a shortcoming noticed by evaluators like Farleigh Dickinson head coach Greg Herenda.
“He was heavy, out of shape, had like a white t-shirt on, and I turn to my assistant and I’m like, ‘Is this the kid?’” Herenda says. “We literally took his name off the board.”
Ultimately, Townes decided he had invested too much in basketball to give it up. It was his true passion. He rededicated himself to the sport that winter, putting in extra time on the court to sharpen his skills and return to basketball shape.
Because of Farleigh Dickinson’s proximity to St. Joseph, and the team’s success, Herenda revisited in January. By then Townes was, in Herenda’s words, “a physical specimen.” FDU put on the recruiting blitz, eventually signing Townes over offers from St Peter’s, South Alabama, Hartford, and Charleston Southern. Still, Townes entered college with a plan. “Obviously I felt like I was better than the schools I was going to, so my thought process was to go there for a year, do the best I can and transfer.”
Would that it were so simple.
When you ask the people closest to Marques Townes why every team he’s on seems to win, each one will eventually, inevitably, talk about his heart. He wears it on his sleeve, whether he’s flexing his muscles, pumping up the crowd, or sitting in a press conference following the Ramblers’ conference tournament championship last season. The moment came when he was asked to reflect on not being able to play the previous year as the team fell short in the same tournament.
“I told coach I was going to do everything I can to try to get these guys back here, and I’m just...” Townes’ voice breaks, and he shakes his head as tears begin to form in his eyes. Moser reaches over and puts his arm around Townes as he continues. “I’m so proud of these guys,” Townes says, voice breaking again. “We worked so hard in the summer time and pushed each other, you know, I just love these guys so much.” The rest of the team begins clapping and two teammates reach over to give Townes a hug.
“I connect with passion,” Moser says now. “Maybe that’s why I’m so close to him.”
“We don’t have anybody else on our team that really does that,” Loyola Chicago senior guard Clayton Custer says of Townes’ emotional intensity, which proves to be contagious for the rest of the team. One week later, after Donte Ingram hit his game-winning shot in the first round of NCAA Tournament against Miami, Townes was the first to run up to him, grab him and yell “I love you! I love you!” amongst the chaos.
Townes’ emotions manifest in other ways. Teammates and coaches at every level admit he has a tendency to dramatize bumps and fouls, especially in practice, falling on the floor and lingering as though he’s injured despite his impressive frame. It’s the thing Moser gets on Townes for most often. The coach used to make Townes run sprints every time he fell unnecessarily after an unsuccessful layup attempt.
In the fall of 2014, it didn’t take his new teammates at Farleigh Dickinson long to catch on. “We learned quickly that Marques had a flair for the dramatic. The first time he got hurt in practice everyone was running for the trainer,” Herenda recalls. “Then he got up and after that no one asked for the trainer because Marques was too strong to get hurt.”
Until he did. A knee-to-knee collision in practice during his freshman season at FDU resulted in a contusion, and as he was recovering he developed mononucleosis. His season was over, as was the immediate possibility of transferring to a bigger school, something he had a lot of time to think about during his prescribed bed rest. His emotions turned.
“I was just in like a real bad vibe. I didn’t want to talk to nobody,” Townes says. “Eventually I was just like I can’t be mad at the world, I’ve got to motivate myself, I’ve got to do what I came here to do.”
In retrospect, there was one unexpected benefit to his bout with mono. A lack of appetite took nearly 15 pounds off his leftover football weight, bringing him to around 195. As he regained his strength, returned to the court quicker and better conditioned. His playing time climbed from 21 minutes per game as a freshman to 30 as a sophomore, and his scoring average rose to 11.5 points per game, third best on the team. With Townes back healthy, Farleigh Dickinson transformed from an eight-win team in 2014-15 into a serious Northeast Conference contender in his sophomore season.
Propelled by a three-pointer Townes hit to put the game on ice in the closing minutes of the conference championship game, the Knights earned their first bid to the NCAA Tournament in over a decade. As the buzzer sounded hundreds of FDU fans rushed to celebrate in a mosh pit at midcourt, but Townes stood alone nearby, crying. Tears were still in his eyes as he rejoined his teammates. “I just remember that moment. To know him and coach him, you know how emotional he is,” Herenda says.
The following week the Knights suffered a resounding 96-65 loss to Florida Gulf Coast in the 16-seed play-in game, a game in which Townes scored 13 points and “showed [his] game to the world.” He knew it was time to make good on his original plan to transfer.
Loyola came across Townes by total coincidence. Assistant coach Bryan Mullins called St. Joseph head coach Dave Turco as a favor to a friend, to help a different young player land at the Division III level. Turco called back a few days later and mentioned he might have someone who would be perfect for the Ramblers. Mullins and the Loyola staff were intrigued immediately, not only because of Townes’ ability to draw help defenders when he attacked the rim—“getting the domino started” in Moser terminology—but more because of his track record.
Recruiting winners had by then become a core tenet in Loyola’s philosophy, evidenced by the seven high school state champions on last year’s Final Four team. Loyola brought Townes and his father in for a visit, took them on a tour around Chicago, ate hot dogs at Portillo’s and showed film of how his game would fit seamlessly into Loyola’s offense. Moser had the whole team over for a barbecue. All of this was standard procedure. But at one point in the night Moser remembers walking down to his basement and seeing Townes sitting on the couch between two players. He’d never seen a recruit talking and joking with current players the way Townes was, so he went up and put his hand on Townes’ shoulder. “God Marques, it’s like you’re already part of the team.”
The next morning as Townes signed a form to certify his official visit, Moser joked that he had just tricked Townes into signing his letter of intent. Townes laughed, so Moser moved in for the hard sell.
“We doing it? Are you coming here?”
Townes was noncommittal, knowing he had another visit to Colorado State scheduled for the following weekend. But on the way back from Chicago, he and his father agreed Loyola was the right choice. Moser’s words in his basement stuck with him. He didn’t want to wait and risk losing an opportunity this time around. The next day he called Moser. “I don’t want you guys to have any more visitors or anybody else come in and visit,” Townes told him. “I’m coming.”
The most important shot of Townes career at Loyola Chicago is the one he didn’t take. Trailing by two points in the opening round of the Ramblers’ NCAA Tournament game against Miami, Townes had the ball in his hands driving down the court with less than five seconds on the clock. No one would’ve blamed him for taking the shot. After all, the team trusted his ability to attack to the rim on each of the two previous possessions. Instead he passed, sacrificing a shot at March Madness glory for an open Donte Ingram. It was the winning play. And so the Cinderella story began.
Giving up a good shot for a better one became the calling card for the Ramblers all season, a big reason why the team ranked third in the country in field goal percentage. Townes was an extension of that efficiency, shooting 55 percent from the floor and 39 percent from three, consistent enough to score in double figures in 23 contests while taking more than 10 field goal attempts just nine times.
The team won, and kept winning, realizing by January that perhaps they could be the ones to fill the void at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference left by Wichita State’s departure. They finished the regular season 25-5, won the conference tournament, and arrived on the national stage unafraid. During the NCAA Tournament, Townes went toe-to-toe with future NBA draft picks and all-conference performers without hesitation. “He’s got that kind of confidence, a swag about him,” Mullins says. “He believes he’s the best player on the court every time he steps out there.”
After the Final Four, Townes was asked to join the Dominican Republic national team over the summer for the 23rd Central American and Caribbean Games in Columbia. His mother, Luisa, was born there before immigrating to the United States as a child, and Townes felt a connection to the country after visiting many times in his younger years. He had been trying to join the national team for years. Upon joining the team in July, he found the style of basketball to be more isolation-heavy, a far cry from what he was used to at Loyola. He adjusted, scoring 19 points in an overtime loss in the bronze medal game.
Building off that experience, with key players from last year’s Loyola team graduating, many assumed Townes and Custer would be asked to take on more substantial scoring roles for the Ramblers this season. But before the year Moser took his two seniors to lunch to remind them he expected nothing more than business as usual. What he really wanted was their leadership.
The test of that leadership came immediately. In the second game of the season Furman upset the Ramblers on their home floor, with Townes giving up a backdoor cut on the final play for the game-winning dunk. He took the loss hard, shutting himself in his room and not wanting to speak to anyone that night. But the following day, he and Custer organized a players-only film session to review the game, something the team didn’t do once last season.
“We’re not here to hurt each other’s feelings, if you want to say something say it, we’re all here together,” Townes told the team. “We’ve got to do the little things. I didn’t do all the little things and that caused us to lose the opportunity, but we’ve got to stay strong.”
“One thing you look for in sensitive losses is accountability,” Moser says. “He needs to make a conscious effort to be a better defender. But every game we have down the stretch, I want Marques Townes in the game. Because he’s a winner.”
Through the season’s first month, the Ramblers are learning just how difficult it can be to follow up a trip to the Final Four, dropping a second game on Wednesday against Boston College in the Fort Myers Tip-Off. Averages of 14 turnovers per game and 31 percent three-point shooting are as surprising and they are uncharacteristic. With No. 5 Nevada coming to town on Tuesday, and Ball State, Maryland and St. Joseph still looming before Christmas, things don’t get any easier. However, minutes after Wednesday’s loss Townes took to social media to capture the mindset of the team.
“Adversity can break you or make you if you let it, the choice is yours.”