Loyola-Chicago (and Sister Jean) ready for another banner season

CHICAGO — They began lining up at 5:15 p.m. on a chilly Tuesday night, nearly three hours before Loyola-Chicago would tip off the season after The Season.

The first arrivals sat on the floor of the Damen Student Center, waiting for the Gentile Arena doors to open. Others filled in behind them, packing a long corridor. Eventually, the line curved left and stretched outside, along a campus walkway flanking the West Quad, extending out toward Sheridan Road. Most Loyola students made it inside the arena, where they wore their maroon-and-gold scarves, watched the 2018 Final Four banner rise to the rafters, prayed with Sister Jean and then screamed their heads off for two hours. A less ambitious group, who didn’t anticipate the change on their campus since March, were turned away.

“The line,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser, who tweeted a video of the lined-up students, “it … is … awesome. It goes on and on and on and on.”

The Final Four buzz is still going on at Loyola, and revealed itself in many ways during the past seven months. Loyola welcomed its largest-ever freshman class (2,774 students) and has had 17 percent more visitors to its quaint campus, bordering Lake Michigan in northeast Chicago. Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, heroes of the Final Four run, are recognized around town. Loyola’s biggest celebrity, team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, turned 99 on Aug. 21, and last month attended a student leadership event in Chicago as a special guest of former President Bill Clinton.

“That was great fun,” Sister Jean said before Loyola’s opening game. “When I met him, I said, ‘Since you went to Georgetown, we’re going to make you an honorary Rambler,’ and I gave him a scarf. He put it on. So then I gave him a [Sister Jean] bobblehead, and he said, ‘I know just exactly where I’ll put this in my office.’ It was exciting.”

But nothing topped the excitement of opening night.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” athletic director Steve Watson said. “Two years ago, three years ago, we were lucky to get a couple hundred students to the games. We were begging the people in Res-Life to do anything they could to help us get students to come. Can we give them pizza? T-shirts? [Players and coaches] were giving out hot dogs, they were doing dorm storms and passing out schedule magnets and posters.

“Literally, [opening] night, we had to turn students away. It happened fast.”

The speed and surprise of Loyola’s Final Four run made it unique. Thanks partly, of course, to Sister Jean. “She brought the non-basketball fan into it,” Watson said. “Everybody knows who Sister Jean is. That’s a differentiator.”

Before March, the Ramblers last made the NCAA tournament in 1985, the first year the field expanded to 64 teams. They would record only one winning record in the ensuing 16 seasons, fail to reach 20 wins again until 2006-07 and not reach a postseason tournament until the 2015 CBI, Moser’s fourth season. Custer played before bigger and more enthusiastic crowds at his high school in Kansas. “Pretty horrible,” Custer said, describing the student support early in his Loyola career.

Moser had things on track and a talented team entering the 2017-18 season. But not even the ever-optimistic Sister Jean could have seen the Ramblers winning the Missouri Valley regular-season title by four games, sweeping through Arch Madness in St. Louis to reach March Madness, and then surviving the seemingly brutal South Region to get to San Antonio.

“To get as far as we got, it’s safe to say we probably skipped a couple steps,” Watson said. “What’s important is not taking steps back.”

Not backsliding is the sole focus for Moser, Watson, the players, Sister Jean and everyone associated with Loyola basketball. Before the Final Four run, did you know Loyola won the 1963 national championship? Probably not. Loyola couldn’t harness that title into long-term relevancy. There’s a belief this time will be different, and the key people are putting in the work.

“People don’t think we can be good again,” Moser said. “Some people say we are, but deep down, there’s a lot of people who don’t think we can be good again. I love that opportunity.”

This summer, he studied comparable programs that had transcendent seasons and either built upon them or did not. Last month, he spent a day with Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who in 2010, at age 33, led Butler to the first Final Four in team history. The next year, Stevens took Butler back to the title game. Moser talked with Stevens and Matt Howard, the former Butler star who just happened to be visiting his old coach, about how to craft an encore. They recalled how, in February 2011, Butler slipped to 14-9 after a loss at Youngstown State.

Players and coaches had to loosen up and reclaim their joy. Butler didn’t lose again until the national championship.

“Talking to those two, you could just feel Matt putting himself back in that moment,” Moser said, “talking about the amount of pressure it was from everything from the outside, to the point where the fun’s coming out of it. It had to do with guys relieving some pressure.”

Moser also surveyed coaching colleagues whose teams struggled to follow a breakthrough season. According to Custer, Moser shared takeaways from Chris Collins, who in 2017 guided Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament appearance. The Wildcats entered last season ranked No. 19 but finished 15-17.

The biggest lesson is already sinking in.

“We can’t skip the process,” Custer said.

“We can’t skip to March,” Townes added. “Once you get that feeling of March, people just want to skip to the end so bad.”

Watson did his own digging, talking to administrator friends at Butler, as well as Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who coached Watson at Bowling Green and led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, breaking a barrier of sorts for mid-majors.

“It was all about investing back into the program and not sitting back and resting on your laurels,” Watson said. “There’s the Butlers, the Gonzagas, VCU, Wichita State, the schools that have had the tournament success and then didn’t take the step back. There have been other programs out there who’ve kind of been the one-hit wonders.

“We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.”

Loyola began upgrading its program before the Final Four run, namely by funding an $18.5 million practice facility for its basketball and volleyball teams — right now, all four squads must share court time at Gentile Arena — set to open next summer. When the Ramblers reached the South Regional in Atlanta, Watson gathered board of trustees chair Robert Parkinson and the school’s top donors to discuss immediate and long-term needs. The most pressing was Moser — “Every time we won a [tournament] game, we knew we were going to have to pay him a little bit more,” Watson said — who in late April agreed to a new contract through the 2025-26 season. It included a sizable increase to his salary, which reportedly had been $420,000. Moser also ended up retaining his entire staff.

The next steps involve bigger budgets for recruiting, travel (no more six-hour bus rides to Carbondale), nutrition and facilities. Loyola must do more with less — its athletic department has only 64 employees, including coaches, and Gentile Arena seats about 5,000 — but after the Final Four run, there’s a desire to move up in class.

“It had been so long since we’ve had any real kind of competitive success, so [donors] don’t want it to be another 33 years before we go to the tournament again,” Watson said. “So we try to educate them and make sure they understand it’s going to take an investment. And it’s an easy sell. It’s something they want to support.”

Moser also had an easy sell with the players as they began preparing for a new season. Little would change. They would continue to play the egalitarian brand of basketball that got them to the Final Four — excellent floor spacing, good shots passed up for better shots, big assist totals fueling strong shooting percentages. They’d miss Donte Ingram’s length and versatility, Aundre Jackson’s post scoring and Ben Richardson’s defense and leadership, but they still had three of their five double-figure scorers — Custer, Townes and crafty center Cameron Krutwig — along with emerging guard Lucas Williamson and several talented newcomers. Their mantra from last season — do things better than we’ve ever done it before — would remain.

Thing is, Moser knew things had changed at Loyola, probably for the better, but he focused on eliminating any sign of entitlement. When the freshman class arrived on campus, players helped them move into the dorms.

“I’m really proud,” Moser said. “Our guys don’t walk around here like they’re God’s gift. We had great workouts this summer. We got better, stronger, everything.”

The forward-thinking approach made opening night tough for Moser. He nearly didn’t leave the locker room for the banner-raising and looked fidgety before posing for a team picture. Players also struggled during the pregame ceremony.

“I had to stop paying attention to it for a second because they were playing this slow, emotional music and I was about to start crying, just because I started thinking about last year,” Custer said. “You think about all that work that you put in. To see that banner going up was a pretty special moment, so it was kind of an emotional thing for me. I had to be like, ‘We’re about to play a game. You’ve got to snap out of it.’

“Now I’m completely moved on.”

Loyola looked much like last season’s team in its opening win over UMKC: 54.7 percent shooting, 17 assists on 29 field goals, eight steals, only 45 points allowed. But three nights later, Loyola blew a 13-point, second-half lead, gave up 20 points in the final 5:55 and lost 60-58 to Furman. The Ramblers shot just 37 percent, including 3 of 20 from 3-point range, and assisted on only 10 field goals.

Moser saw players doing too much, not selfishly, but without fully trusting new rotations in a new season. He didn’t love the loss but loved the response. In the team’s film review, Custer, Townes and Krutwig all pointed out what they could have done differently. It reminded Moser of last season’s team, which insisted on watching the “get-better tape” after every game, even tournament wins.

“Sometimes you can get into a false sense of where you are, and losses help you evolve,” Moser said. “Yes, it pisses me off. Yes, it pisses the whole locker room off. But is there panic? No. When you have productive film sessions that have accountability like that, and after losses, it’s healthy. You’re going in the right direction.”

Moser must keep the players on course. “I worry about every one of them,” he said. He worries about veteran leaders like Custer and Townes gaining comfort with new lineups and avoiding the burden Matt Howard carried after Butler’s first Final Four run. He worries about players moving into larger roles, like Williamson, or those who watched the Final Four from the bench and are eager to contribute, like New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak. Both players had looked “miserable,” so Moser showed them “The Happiness Equation,” the bestselling book about how production and success comes only from a baseline of being happy.

“It’s easy in practice,” Custer said. “We’re moving it, we look really good, but when you get out there in a game, there’s distractions, people yelling. It’s just a different thing, I can’t really explain. Hopefully it doesn’t take us long, but maybe we’ve got to grind through this nonconference schedule and just continue to keep getting better, continue to learn how to play with each other.”

The Ramblers are grinding at 4-2. They would rather be 6-0 entering Tuesday night’s home game with No. X Nevada, a notch the Ramblers collected during the NCAA tournament. But they also remember early last season — a 34-point loss at Boise State, dropping three of four to unheralded opponents — and what they went on to achieve.

“We want to continue to extend the success, the culture that we have here, we don’t want that to fall apart,” Townes said. “We want to sustain that success … so we can be like the Gonzagas, the Butlers, the Wichita States. That’s what you want to do. You don’t want to have just one good year and then, boom, not be known any more.”

Loyola is unlikely to fade from view any time soon. The team has been selected for Battle 4 Atlantis and the Cancun Challenge in future seasons. “Tournaments we couldn’t get into before,” Moser said. Season-ticket sales are up 275 percent. Attendance is up 121 percent year over year with Nevada pegged as Loyola’s second sellout.

The student section, which changed nicknames often but rarely filled until late last season, is already over capacity.

“Porter always talked about wanting tickets to be a problem, where we had to find ways to get people in the door,” said Marty Breslin, a Loyola senior who leads The Pack, the school’s student section. “We’re definitely at that point. Kids are waiting in line for hours to get in. Kids are trying to find different entrances to get in. Kids I haven’t seen since freshman year are texting me before games, ‘Hey, do you think you could get me in?’

“They’re not only thinking about Loyola basketball. It’s, how can I get in and watch?”

Watson sees what Loyola can become, with its cozy arena in a big city stuffed with talented high school players and starved for a consistent winner in college basketball. But sustaining is never easy.

“On a weekday night in February, when we’re playing maybe one of the lower-level teams in the conference, are people going to come out?” he said. “I’m optimistic, but we’ll be watching closely.”

Sister Jean, not surprisingly, has a bit more faith. Since arriving on campus in 1991, she has witnessed the program’s complete makeover. She also has done more than anyone to raise Loyola’s profile since March.

“The whole thing has been like a roller-coaster, ever since March Madness,” she said. “The enthusiasm and the energy that it’s created is unbelievable. Before final exams in [May], I said to the students, ‘How come you’re all so happy before exams?’ And they looked at me so quizzically and said, ‘Sister Jean, Final Four!’

“It will never be the same.”

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