OK, Loyola-Chicago, you have our attention.
Until this past Wednesday, a Missouri Valley Conference team hadn’t beaten a top-5 opponent on the road since Dec 6, 1967…
And then the Ramblers went to Florida and took care of that drought, 65-59 -- on the exact 50th anniversary. They did it playing nine guys, only one taller than 6-6.
Until this past Saturday, Loyola had not started 10-1 since 1965…
And then the Ramblers blew away Norfolk State 80-52. So here they are, in a place they haven’t been in more than half a century. “That’s what coach was talking about at the beginning of the year,” leading scorer Aundre Jackson said. “This year, we want to do things better than we’ve ever done before.”
While we’re on the subject of dry spells that could give birth to the Sahara, Loyola hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament for 32 years…
And don’t these Ramblers know it. Last season, it was Northwestern’s turn to charm Chicago with a barrier-breaking tournament bid. This year, Loyola? “That’s something I’ve thought about since I stepped on this campus,” guard and Chicago native son Donte Ingram said. “We looked at (Northwestern) and thought, why not us?”
A good week, then, to get coach Porter Moser on the phone and see what is happening with his team.
“It just continues to show that the arrow is pointing up,” said the man who took over a program in 2011 that had four winning seasons in 24. “You just want to change the culture of where you’re going.”
Don’t know much about the Ramblers? Here is Loyola 101:
• The Ramblers are a model of offensive efficiency. They shot a school-record 71.4 percent in the Norfolk game, which puts them at 53.4 percent for the season, fourth best in the nation. Nearly two of every three of their field goals come off assists. Jackson is shooting 69 percent with his 14.3 average. Last season, as Missouri Valley sixth man of the year, he was at 66.9. In junior college, he was at 65 percent.
We’ve spotted a trend, here. The guy must be surprised when it doesn’t go in.
“Actually I am,” he said. “I try to shoot the shots I know I can make, so whenever I miss, I take it to heart a little bit. I believe that I can make that shot.”
Ingram: “We really stress spacing, going downhill, getting the dominoes started. There’s just so many guys on this team that can shoot the ball. It makes it hard for teams to really guard us because we have so many threats on the court.”
Moser: “My old boss Rick Majerus would love it. He would always say spacing is offense and offense is spacing. I think we really space the floor well.
“I love the closeness of the culture off the floor. I think they’re becoming a team of `we’. When you do that, your assists numbers should be high because you don’t care (who scores).”
You want close? Starting backcourt Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson – both injured at the moment, which hasn’t much slowed down Loyola -- not only come from the same high school in Kansas, they have been on the same team nearly every year since the third grade.
“Watching them play,” Moser said, “it’s kind of like they have sonar where the other one is.”
• Loyola will awe nobody with size. There is 6-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig in the rotation, and then a pack of 6-4 and 6-5 Ramblers.
“The game really is going to small-ball, playing four guards,” Ingram said. “We’re never worried about our size. We like to play fast, and it’s really a mismatch problem for other teams to guard us.”
• Moser’s recruiting effort has been aimed at finding winners.
“For our guys, this is the stage they want. We have seven guys on our team who won state championships in high school. You start to build a group of guys that won before, that winning matters, I think that’s how you build a culture. I’m a huge proponent of culture, I believe in it, but to do that you’ve got to recruit it. There’s no fairy dust.”
• The Loyola athletic department clocked in at 99 percent on the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate list, sharing the top spot with five other schools – four of them from the Ivy League.
• This was no instant fix for Moser. His first Loyola team went 7-23 in 2011-12. Two more losing seasons followed. And this was while moving up in weight class to the Missouri Valley Conference.
“When you look at the teams during conference realignment that moved up,” Moser listed off, “Xavier, powerhouse basketball program, Elite Eight. Butler, Final Fours. Creighton, multiple NCAA Tournaments. George Mason moved up, a Final Four. VCU moved up, a Final Four team. Davidson moved up, many NCAA Tournament bids. Then you get to Loyola.”
The breakthrough came with a 24-13 record and CBI tournament championship in 2014-15.
“Five years ago at media day, every question I got was, `Hey, are you glad to be in the conference?’” Moser said. “This year’s media day, all the questions were about contending for a championship. I love that we’re in that conversation now.”
• Loyola remains the only school from the state of Illinois with a national championship. The 1963 Ramblers won a memorable title, upsetting No. 1 Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime, playing their five starters the whole way. Do the players of 2017 even know?
“Those guys are around,” Moser said. “They come to games, they talk to our guys, they come to practices. One of the unwritten things about that ’63 team is how classy that group is. There’s like 16 or 17 degrees among the eight of them. They’re thriving in whatever walks of life. The guys see that. The national championship trophy’s on display, the picture is on display.”
• Florida was the launching pad victory they have been looking for. The Ramblers hadn’t won a game on the road against so highly a ranked team since 1984.
On this big of a night in #CBB KC's Mid-Major Minute can't be contained to just one team. What @PorterMoser & @LoyolaRamblers did beating #5 Florida tonight was special! Congrats! @YouTheBOSS_Dre pic.twitter.com/4xfIMEYT0Y— Kevin Connors (@kevconnorsespn) December 7, 2017
Moser: “We got back to campus the next day and there were like 10 TV cameras waiting. But that wasn’t our end game, that’s part of the process. The teams that go to the tournament every year, they win a game like this, they put it in the bank, they build up their resume, and then it’s next one up.
“I want this to make them hungrier and more greedy to get this feeling again.”
Ingram: “It’s not a conference championship, it’s not a ticket to the NCAA tournament. We know that’s not the end of things, it’s just the beginning for us.”
• Finally, about that NCAA tournament bid. The road probably goes through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and that road got a little less daunting this season. No Wichita State, the Shockers off to the American.
“I really wanted Wichita State to stay, just so we could get that win,” Jackson said. But there’s an upside, too.
“What I think is happening, it’s given the whole league this huge infusion of opportunity and excitement. Everyone is like, why not us?” Moser said. “I think that’s been a jolt of confidence, and why you see our whole league playing at a high level right now. We’re just like the other nine. Why not us?”
That’s the question of the moment at Loyola.