ATLANTA — Exactly one minute remained in the Elite Eight game between Loyola of Chicago and Kansas State. The Ramblers led by 12 points after a made free throw from Lucas Williamson. For Porter Moser, Sister Jean and company, a ticket to the Final Four was on its way to being punched.
Near the end of Loyola’s bench, Carson Shanks couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t believe where he was, what he was witnessing and what he was a part of.
His knees shaking, the 7-footer’s head fell into his lap. His fists were clenched and held out in front of him. Sixteen seconds later, Clayton Custer sank two more free throws, extending Loyola’s lead and further cementing the history the Ramblers were about to make.
Shanks cheered as the free throws swished through the net. His briefs prayers were over. His face was covered in a smile.
Loyola was making this happen. And although Shanks averaged just 2.5 minutes per game this season, he was a part of it.
And from his perspective, that was unbelievable. When he transferred into Loyola as a graduate student from North Dakota, this — going on an incredible and historic run to the Final Four — was the last thing he expected.
“I came here and (Moser) said we had a great team with some great guys and a great campus,” Shanks said. “And that’s all I expected. To do this, I feel like I’m living in a dream.”
Affectionally called “The Big Fudge” by his teammates — as an ode to a fellow, but fictional Minnesotan, Marshall Eriksen from “How I Met Your Mother” — Shanks is the loudest cheerleader on the bench and the biggest goofball in the locker room.
While Shanks’ on-court contributions to Loyola this season have been hardly noticeable — he’s tallied just 10 points, four rebounds and an assist all year — his off-court influence has been invaluable. The fifth-year senior has been a mentor, a big brother and a guide for the younger Ramblers. He’s helped Cameron Krutwig develop into one of the best big men in the NCAA tournament, and he’s helped the team as a whole prepare for each game.
Shanks’ collegiate career began at Utah State, then took him to a three-season stop at North Dakota, where he helped the Fighting Hawks make the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Just before his career at Loyola began, he tore his labrum.
Still, Shanks has made a large impact on this team and had a hand in its unforgettable run to the Final Four.
But Shanks is just one of several players that have had unique and unconventional journeys to college basketball fame.
Consider some of the starters. Ben Richardson was the underrecruited and undersized kid from a town in Kansas. He didn’t have a single Power 5 offer but came to Loyola and turned himself into one of the country’s best perimeter defenders.
His childhood teammate, Clayton Custer, went to Iowa State but quickly found himself further down the depth chart than he would’ve liked. The coach that recruited him there left for a cozy gig in the NBA, so Custer sought out a mid-major where he’d feel at home and have a chance to start. That place happened to be Loyola, with Richardson.
Marques Townes seemed destined to be a Power 5 linebacker. At St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey, schools like Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers, Boston College and Syracuse expressed interest in his gridiron abilities. But he also had Division I colleges calling for his skills on the hardwood. Townes went back and forth on which sport to play at the collegiate level and eventually decided on basketball late in his senior year, but most schools had moved on. He wound up at Farliegh Dickinson, where he was successful, but uncomfortable. After leading the Knights to the NCAA tournament in 2016, he was looking to transfer.
That same season, Loyola assistant Bryan Mullins was doing a friend a favor. The friend had asked Mullins to look at a kid at St. Joseph’s and see if he could find a Division II school for him. While he was there, a St. Joseph coach approached Mullins and said, “Would you be interested in a guard? He’s a winner. He might be leaving the school he’s at and he’s a tough kid.”
Mullins was soon recruiting Townes, who connected on the game-winning three-pointer in Loyola’s win over 7 seed Nevada.
“He’s from New Jersey, he likes the big city aspect, he loved the academics at Loyola, and we kind of just find ourselves with him,” Mullins said.
Then there’s Donte Ingram. College basketball fans hear all the time how good DePaul or Northwestern could be if only one of them could keep the Chicago kids at home. Ingram is a Chicago kid who did stay in the Windy City, but he didn’t opt for the Big East or Big Ten. For him, Moser and the Missouri Valley Conference felt the most like home.
Ingram didn’t waste any time on going all in with the Ramblers. With just three offers — from Hampton, Missouri State and Loyola — he signed on with Moser before his senior season at Simeon Career Academy even started.
“I liked the way things were going here,” Ingram said. “I liked the uptick and the culture and I saw things turning around here, and that we had the chance to do very good things here. So, I bought in early, and I didn’t listen to all of the ‘Oh you could’ve went here,’ or ‘Oh you could’ve waited.’ I was really bought in to Coach Moser’s philosophy. I’m happy I made that choice.”
It worked out for Ingram, who got a shout-out from fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper after he hit the game-winner for Loyola against 6 seed Miami in the first round of the tournament.
For another key piece of Loyola’s squad, the journey to the Final Four didn’t start in Chicago, Overland Park or Iowa State. Kennedale, Texas — a small town with a population of less than 7,000 people — is where Aundre Jackson’s story begins.
At 6-foot-5 and the ability to score inside and out, Jackson had the skills to play big time college basketball, but no one seemed to notice him. He had a handful of offers from Division II and NAIA schools, but thought that, with time, he could do better. Jackson wound up in Waco at McLennan County Community College.
“I just took a different route than some of these other guys,” Jackson said. “I went the hard way.”
Indeed, McLennan was an offbeat and difficult route, but it gave Jackson reps, a chance to shine and a chance to be seen. Near the end of his sophomore season, Division I coaches started to learn his name and game.
Jackson met Moser for the first time after his McLennan team lost in the semifinals of the national JUCO tournament.
He was sulking from the loss and wasn’t really in the mood for a recruiting pitch, but Moser’s words stuck with Jackson. Moser convinced him that he could be great at Loyola, and that Chicago would feel like home, even though it was much different from Kennedale.
“Coach just came up to me and talked to me and started preaching the culture,” Jackson said. “I was still kind of hurt and kind of sad after losing, but once I went back home, my athletic director at Waco told me Coach Porter was great guy and that he was going to look out for me. When I took my visit, I enjoyed everything about it. It was a great fit. They made me feel at home and gave me that family aspect.”
The 1,071-mile move from Waco to Chicago worked out for Jackson, who was named MVC Sixth Man of the Year in his first season at Loyola. This season, he started a handful of games at the beginning of the season, but then returned to his off-the-bench role. His production in the tournament has been at an all-time high, as he’s Loyola’s leading scorer in the big dance with 12.3 points per-game.
“It just proves that if you work hard, you can achieve anything,” Jackson said of his JUCO grind. “Coming here, making it to the Final Four, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s a dream come true. I just want to lock in now and get that ring.”
For a mid-major making a run to the Final Four, Cameron Krutwig is a rarity.
Look at 2006 George Mason, 2010 and 2011 Butler, 2011 VCU or 2013 Wichita State — none of those teams started a freshman at center.
But Krutwig’s soft touch, relentless energy on the glass and footwork resembling a dancing bear have made him difficult to guard. He was named MVC Freshman of the Year, and held his own against Kansas State’s front line of Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien, tallying nine points and seven rebounds.
Like Ingram, Krutwig was a Chicago kid who decided to stay close to home. He comes from the suburb of Algonquin, nestled just outside the city, 45 miles from Loyola. UAB, Vermont, DePaul, Toledo and Northern Illinois were all interested, but Moser’s message hooked him.
“I think it was (Moser’s) energy and vision. I just felt an immediate connection with all of the guys here and the coaching staff,” Krutwig said. “I hope this run that we’re on, and all the media and publicity that we’re getting, I hope that lures some other Illinois talent to our school. I know whoever they recruit, they’re going to get good guys and they’re going to make them feel at home.”
A sense of home is why Shanks came to Loyola when he left North Dakota. A native of Apple Valley, Minnesota, he could’ve went elsewhere for the chance to score points and play often.
Loyola’s players and coaches took to The Big Fudge right away. They made him feel comfortable. They gave him a role. They presented him with the opportunity to be a part of something special.
“That’s my guy, Carson. He’s been huge for me this season,” Krutwig said. “It was cool to see those guys genuinely care for me and like me. Sometimes freshmen get made fun of or hazed a little, but not with this group.”
What Shanks and the rest of the Ramblers have in common is this: they all have had unique journeys and they all made incredible sacrifices for memories that will never fade.
For Shanks, he forfeited playing time. In the 2017 NCAA tournament, he played 19 minutes, scored five points and grabbed two rebounds in North Dakota’s first round loss to Arizona. For most mid-major players, that’s the highlight of their career. Had Shanks stayed at North Dakota or gone elsewhere, it might still be.
With 34 seconds left in the Elite Eight game, Loyola led Kansas State by 16 points after a pair of good free throws from Ingram. Moser waved over to the bench. Again, Shanks was presented with a moment that he could only have experienced in his dreams.
He ripped off his warm ups. A smile was glued to his face.
“Man, I’ve never ran my ass to the scorer’s table so fast,” Shanks said. “To be on the court for those last few seconds in a historic moment, for Loyola, and to be here with my family, it’s just something I can’t even explain.”
A teammate passed him the ball, but Shanks quickly passed it back. He just laughed and raised his arms up, shrugging at his family in the crowd, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
After the buzzer, after the confetti fell, after he slapped a Final Four hat on his head, Shanks still couldn’t.
“This is something that all of us as basketball players dream about,” he said. “Being at a mid-major school, you know, this doesn’t happen every day. Going to the Final Four is something I could have never imagined.”