Loyola's Marques Townes was named the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year
Following Final Four run, Loyola Chicago learned how to sustain success
By Jesse Kramer
Two years ago, Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser stood outside a silent locker room, minutes after his team’s season ended in the Missouri Valley Conference Quarterfinals. The Ramblers, with their best team yet during Moser’s tenure, laid an egg in the conference tournament.
With all-conference guard Milton Doyle set to graduate, Loyola’s future was somewhat uncertain. Moser remained optimistic.
“It’s difficult to imagine this team without Milt considering all he’s done for our program,”
Moser said, “but we have good pieces. I’ve said it all along, we’re moving in the right direction. Our arrow is pointing up.”
Fast forward 24 months, and Loyola owns back-to-back MVC titles and a legendary Final Four run. The Ramblers will compete for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this weekend as the top seed at Arch Madness in Saint Louis.
While each season ended with a conference title, the journeys to get there were remarkably different.
Last year’s team cruised to a 25-5 record entering Arch Madness and won the league crown by four games.
This year’s team is 19-12, having never won more than three games in a row, and shared the title with Drake. After losing three key seniors and facing abnormally high expectations, the Ramblers lost six times in non-conference play, eclipsing their non-conference loss total from the last two seasons combined.
“It was just an amazing grind, for our guys to be resilient and win a share of the league,” Moser said.
Loyola’s struggles partially fall on losing starting guard Lucas Williamson to a hand injury in late November, but even with a fully healthy roster the Ramblers lost at home to Furman and on a neutral site to Boston College.
The Ramblers recovered, but at a two-steps-forward, one-step-back pace. They opened 2-0 in the conference, and then got blown out by Evansville. Three more wins followed, but a 35-point drubbing at Missouri State ended that streak.
“We just never felt we were playing as well as we could,” senior guard Clayton Custer said. “It could definitely get frustrating, but I think it also speaks a lot to our team’s full potential. Even though it felt like we were struggling, we’d look up and see we were winning the conference.”
Assistant coach Bryan Mullins said the Ramblers had to learn what it takes to repeat as champions. Mullins, who won the 2006-07 MVC title as a player at Southern Illinois, believes that coaches can’t help much in that regard; players truly learn how to play with a target on their back only by living through it.
“It’s hard to explain to them, ‘Hey, the other team is gonna play their best game of the season because it’s against you guys,” Mullins said. “They had to experience it for themselves, and I think they got better with it throughout the year.”
Custer won consecutive Kansas state titles in high school, but he said trying to repeat at the collegiate level posed a far greater challenge.
“It’s just so much harder to repeat in college,” Custer said. “There’s so many good players in the Valley, and the preparation at the college level is way more intense.”
Following last year’s championship, Loyola graduated starters Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson and sixth man Aundre Jackson. One of the biggest challenges for Moser and his staff was lifting the rotation’s four new faces to a championship level, particularly their three freshmen.
“One minute you’re hard on them, and then you start worrying if you’re too hard on them,” Moser said. “Then you start going soft on them, and you feel like you need to be harder on them. It’s a balance.”
But when there’s a conference title race on the line, the balance shifts. Sensitivity takes a backseat.
“This isn’t like the first five or 10 games,” Moser said. “Every team should have a sense of urgency. You can’t be worried about how someone’s feeling. You’ve gotta bring it.”
The Ramblers brought it in their final two games, knocking off Northern Iowa and Bradley to win their share of the MVC title. Getting Williamson back for those two games brought the team closer to grasping their full potential, which Custer claimed is as high as last year’s.
That’s why, even though the road has been rockier, the Ramblers feel just as confident as they did at this point last year entering the conference tournament.
“We knew going into the tournament last year that we had to win it to get into the NCAA Tournament,” said Mullins. “It’s the same thing this year, so we’re taking the same approach: one game at a time.”
After 33 years without a conference title, not many people saw Loyola winning two in as many seasons. The program has ascended far enough to attain an unexpected luxury: even in a year where the Ramblers fell short of expectations, they won a conference title.
“It’s crazy to think about,” Mullins said of the program’s growth. “It’s always been Coach Moser’s vision not only to build a championship team, but to sustain it.”
Neither part came easy. The next question is if Loyola can sustain its season deeper into March.