ST. LOUIS — The annual question around the NCAA Tournament is who will be this year’s Butler, or VCU and now, “Who can be this year’s Loyola?”
The Ramblers’ magical ride to the 2018 Final Four was filled with improbable victories over power conference squads and an uber-talented Nevada Wolf Pack team.
Led by energetic Porter Moser, the Ramblers made one dramatic shot after another on their way to the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship and postseason tournament, but that was just the preamble to their historic ride in March.
This year, Loyola’s bid for another magical March came to an abrupt end with a 53-51 loss to 5 seed Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals. But ask around at Arch Madness, and it’s apparent how that one run changed the culture and the outlook from other Valley programs.
“It was great being able to experience that, in terms of watching them,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobsen said. “Just in terms of how much they trusted each other and how much they were connected in everything they did.”
Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing had a similar opinion:
“That team was exemplifying togetherness and chemistry and where it can take you,” he said. “They had good basketball players, but the toughness, the respect and the way they played for each other was unbelievable.”
Some of that may sound like coach speak, but there’s something to it. The Ramblers were competitive last season, then became great in March. For that, Moser credits his team’s depth and intangibles.
“We had a very unselfish group. They were all about a shared vision about winning,” Moser said. “We focused our recruiting efforts on winners.
Mid-major programs often struggle to land four and five-star recruits, so Moser says programs that to have postseason success must sign a lot of players with similar mindsets and help those players mature, improve and grow old together.
“We were deep,” Moser said. “We had seven guys that had the ability to get 18-20 points on any given night. You’ve gotta be deep and you’ve gotta be old. In mid-majors, you have to be old. You are going to face teams with higher-rated but younger guys and your veterans can be the difference.”
There is barely a sentence that comes out of the former Creighton Bluejay that doesn’t have the word culture attached. He speaks of building culture, creating culture, the Rambler culture and maintaining culture. Doing the right things the right way is so important that you expect the phrase to be part of the Ten Commandments or a part of one of Sister Jean’s pre-game prayers.
Loyola culture is about togetherness and connectivity. Those ingredients minimize pressurized situations and lead to success. Last season, three senior captains and two junior contributors shared the pressure. Moser believes in strength in numbers when it comes to team leadership.
“Being connected this time of year is huge,” Moser said. “Because pressure mounts in February and March. When you’re connected, you are sharing that pressure. When you share the pressure that way, it is such a better atmosphere in the locker room.”
Jacobson, who took his 2010 team to the Sweet 16, says one of the keys to postseason success is what the Ramblers did last year. They were true to themselves.
“It helped me as our head coach having played against it, having watched it work so well,” he said after his team’s upset semifinal win over Drake. “It promotes passing, it promotes moving, it promotes teamwork, so me being able to see that and watch that has helped me as we’ve implemented our stuff. It’ a good reminder how important those things are.”
Drake, which battled Loyola to a first-place draw in the regular season standings, won just seven total games two years ago. First-year coach Darian DeVries sees Loyola as, possibly, his program a few years down the line.
“When you look at Loyola and what they’ve accomplished, it’s neat for me to see that it is possible,” DeVries said. “They weren’t there a few years ago either. But they did it right, they built it, they have players that play together, they’re unselfish, they play hard and they represent their school they represent themselves in a positive light and that’s the reason. It’s not an accident that they had such success. They had a plan they followed through with the plan and that’s the reason they played on the largest stage last year.”
For Moser, that planning was as important as anything. It’s something he learned from his mentor, the late legendary coach Rick Majerus.
“Coach Majerus prepared for every game like it was the biggest game of the year,” Moser said. “There weren’t special speeches to get the players hyped up. So when big games came along the pressure wasn’t any bigger because we prepared just the same.”
The Valley this year was about as jumbled as it’s ever been. Loyola and Drake set a record for most losses by a regular season champion (six). That’s as many total losses as the Ramblers had all of last year. And while Loyola will have to end this season in the NIT, it’ll be another chance for Moser’s team to continue establishing itself on a national stage. While he is pleased with what his team achieved last season, his sights are set on being a Gonzaga-like program. He is not content with being a one-hit-wonder.
“When I came here, we wanted connection with the student body,” he says. “The students have been unbelievable. What Gentile Arena is becoming is exciting. We can do something on a national stage at Loyola. I still think our arrow is going up. What you want to do is to sustain it. Look at what Gonzaga has done. They’ve done it on a national recruiting level on the kind of players they get.”
Whatever happens in the NIT, Moser says Custer and Valley Player of the Year Marques Townes hold a lofty place in the Rambler story.
“I told them the other day, I want them to have fun and enjoy these last couple of weeks,” he said. “No matter what happens this weekend or the next couple of weeks, they’re going to be on the Mount Rushmore of Loyola basketball. I really want them to have fun and success.”
Depth, experience and an unselfish mindset. That’s what Moser wants the Rambler culture to contain and that is the recipe for other mid-majors to move in the right direction.
Who Can Be This Year’s Loyola?
There are several candidates to wear Cinderella’s slippers this March, but if you are looking for a program like Loyola, the best comparison is found at New Mexico State. The Aggies (27-4, 15-1) are led by Chris Jans, who coached under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State when the Shockers were winning MVC titles and making their deep tournament runs. Jans was hired by Athletic Director Mario Moccia, who came to Las Cruces from the MVC’s Southern Illinois.
The Aggies finished the regular season on a 16-game winning streak and, like last year’s Loyola squad, spread the ball around with a team-first approach. Seven players average more than six points per game and just one averages double figures. Jans’ rotation can stretch to 14 players, which has caused fits for opposing coaches in the WAC.
“They’re one of the deepest teams I’ve ever been around in all my years of college coaching,” UMKC coach Kareem Richardson told Mid-Major Madness after his team fell victim to NMSU on Feb. 28.
Also similar to Moser’s team, the Aggies find the open man. They average 15 assists per game with multiple players capable of handling point guard duties, such as A.J. Harris, Shunn Buchanan and Terrell Brown. They also defend like most MVC teams defend, allowing just 64.6 points per game. The “get old and get deep” mantra that Moser proposed is in full swing under Jans. The seven top scorers are juniors and seniors and three of the seven also sat out a redshirt season.
For the most likely wearers of Cinderella’s slippers, look no farther than New Mexico State.