ATLANTA – Tucked inside the smallest locker room in Phillips Arena, the team with the most improbable run to the Elite Eight basked in their March moment.
After beating Nevada on Thursday, Loyola of Chicago’s locker room was filled with reporters, cameras, bright lights and microphones. One side of the room were the heroes of the game, surrounded by scribes and answering questions. On the other side, assistant coaches and role players lined up to grab a bit of grub at a small buffet table, right off the heels of the biggest win of their careers.
Between all that, in a less crowded corner of the room, Donte Ingram sat and took a breath. His team had won again. But this time, he wasn’t the star. And that was just fine with him. He had hit the game-winning three-pointer to give the Ramblers a first-round upset-win over Miami. This time, Marques Townes had the glory.
“Marques hit a great shot,” Ingram said. “We know it could’ve been anybody to hit that shot. When it went up, I wanted to crash the glass, but at the same time, I had confidence that it was going in.”
A 6-foot-6 senior from Chicago’s esteemed Simeon High School – which has produced players like Benji Wilson, Nick Anderson, Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker – Ingram tallied just two points, two rebounds and an assist in Loyola’s Sweet 16 win. But for 26 minutes, his play was still important: His size and quickness allowed him to be a versatile defender, his length made him good on close outs, he set good, tough screens and his basketball IQ was invaluable.
But since he didn’t stuff the stat sheet or hit a game-winner, Ingram chilled in the corner away from the cameras, sipping on a blue Powerade. Eventually, a reporter waddled over.
Each time Ingram answered a question, it came with a measure of matter-of-factness. He sounded like someone who had been to the Final Four multiple times. He sounded prepared. Ingram was meant to be there.
Hanging above Ingram was one of 19 posters taped all over the Loyola locker room. Each one had x’s, o’s and arrows scribbled on them. They had been hanging there since Loyola arrived. They were Nevada’s plays, etched in great detail.
Plays called “Vegas,” “Dribble Panther,” “Break Stagger Away,” and “Mouse Philly Double High.” Media members had no idea what these words meant, but the Ramblers had them memorized.
The reporter asked Ingram, is Loyola the most-prepared team left in the NCAA tournament?
“In my opinion, I would say yes,” Ingram said. “This coaching staff does a great job of finding out other team’s actions, the individual tendencies of players. We break down what the other team likes to do. We know the majority of the plays they run, which plays they like the most and what they don’t like to do. Offensively, defensively, everything. It’s a competitive advantage for us.”
This explains why Loyola didn’t collapse in the first half when it trailed Nevada by 12 points. Down 20-8, the Ramblers seemed a little shaken — what Missouri Valley Conference team wouldn’t be in the Sweet 16? — but they quickly settled in. The Ramblers played smart, made sharp passes, and played relentless defense.
Nevada was faster, stronger and more talented than Loyola. But at times, it seemed like the Ramblers were a step ahead of the Wolf Pack — all thanks to head coach Porter Moser’s dedication to scouting.
“We’re never not prepared,” senior Aundrae Jackson said. “Coach (Moser) is a master scouter. He’s always prepared and he’s always getting us prepared.”
Because of Loyola’s extensive scouting, Jackson was told that Nevada’s defenders would bite on shot fakes at the rim. He saw it for himself in the first half.
He didn’t use the fakes and his shot got blocked a few times as he went one-of-six from the floor. But his teammate, Cameron Krutwig, used the fakes and scored eight points. Jackson adjusted in the second half, went four-of-five on shots, and finished the game with 15 points.
“They were blocking my shots and jumping for everything, so I had to just get my jump fake into it,” Jackson said. “Once I started doing that and making more baskets I got more comfortable and it became a little bit easier for me.”
Jackson said that when he’s on the floor, he’ll often notice sets the other team is in. Then he’ll picture the posters. Ramblers on the bench will notice too, and they’ll call out the plays.
Drawing up plays on posters and tacking them around the locker room has been something Loyola has done every game this season — both home and away — says assistant coach Bryan Mullins.
“It’s just so our guys can always see something that they might see in the game,” Mullins said. “It helps them visualize what the opponent is going to do.”
Moser says he got his scouting tactics from the late Rick Majerus, whom Moser worked for as an assistant at Saint Louis from 2007-11. Moser said Majerus’ locker rooms at Utah and Saint Louis looked very similar to Loyola’s.
“I think we underestimate the youth on how much they can absorb,” Moser said. “Some people have that philosophy of, I don’t want to give them too much, overload. Our guys embrace it. And in terms of how that locker room looked, it had Rick Majerus all over it.”
“It’s great because, if we’re going over film, we can just point to the plays,” Mullins said. “The coaches have bought into it and the guys have really bought into it too.”
Wherever Loyola has gone this year, it’s traveling war-room has gone with it. Tons of tape on the opponent, and dozens of posters plastered around the locker rooms. Wherever the Ramblers go, information on the opposition is with them.
When Loyola faces Kansas State on Saturday, one thing the Ramblers won’t be is unprepared. They’ve already seen all the Wildcats’ plays; now it’s up to the players to use that information and apply it to the floor.
“We already know everything the other team is going to do,” Jackson said. “So, it’s just up to us to do what we know how to do.”