Loyola men's basketball coach Jimmy Patsos was pacing the hallway outside his locker room Wednesday night, still hyper a few minutes after his team had lost its home finale to Rider, 82-70. A win could have put the Greyhounds in a tie for second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings with two games to play. The loss left them alone in fifth place.
The first question Patsos had asked Joe DelBalso, his sports information director, as he walked into the locker room was direct: "League scores?"
Soon after he came out, DelBalso had his answer: Siena had lost to Saint Peter's. Patsos threw his arms up into the air and said: "Yes! No play-in game." The Saints' loss meant the worst Loyola could finish in the 10-team conference was sixth - meaning it wouldn't have to play the first night of the MAAC tournament.
Rob Ades, Patsos's good friend, agent and mentor whose "what can go wrong next?" demeanor when the Greyhounds are playing often reminds his friends of Eeyore, sat a few feet away staring at Patsos as if he had just announced he had figured out how to fly to Mars and back in a week.
"What, I can't celebrate that? I'm not allowed to celebrate some good news?" Patsos said to Ades - who had not actually opened his mouth. "That's a good thing. It means we only have to win three games to get to the [NCAA] tournament, not four. That's only the third time in seven years. Baby steps, okay? There's nothing wrong with a step forward, even a little one."
Patsos is now in his seventh season of trying to move forward at Loyola, and perhaps the most important thing he has learned has been to revel in baby steps. When he arrived in 2004 after working 13 years as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland, he was absolutely convinced he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He brought manic energy to the job - an upbeat approach that was desperately needed at a program that had just gone 1-27 - and a singular belief that simply wishing for something can make it happen.
He was 37, his hair was jet-black and he was ready to conquer the world - or at least the MAAC. Now, at 44, he's gone gray and understands that baby steps are a lot more realistic to hope for than those single bounds.
Loyola made clear progress during Patsos's first four seasons, going from six wins to 12 to 15 to a school-record 19. Then came two seasons of going backward, to 12-20 and 13-17. That wasn't the arc Patsos had in mind. Nor was the attention he received when he left his seat on the bench during a November 2008 game against Cornell to sit in the stands because he was frustrated with the officiating. Or, for that matter, the criticism showered on him two games later when he had most of the entire Loyola student body guard Davidson's Stephen Curry, leaving his teammates wide open all night. Curry didn't score, but it didn't matter: Davidson won the game, 78-48.
This season started with more steps backward. Loyola was 6-9 in early January after an 18-point loss at Iona, but a surprising win over conference leader Fairfield started a four-game winning streak. Even after Jamal Barney, the team's second-leading scorer, left the Greyhounds (again) for good - he and Patsos had become the college basketball version of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner - the Greyhounds continued to improve. Barney's absence turned out to be a case of addition by subtraction. Patsos, whose bench demeanor had been a cause of concern at times to friends, became a kinder, gentler person. Gone were the tirades about the league not wanting Loyola to win - "we overcame it at Maryland, we'll overcome it here," he yelled one night, sounding just a little bit like his coaching mentor in College Park.
During a game against Siena last season, Patsos began screaming at the referees that his team was getting jobbed when the score was 2-0 and Loyola had the two. When it was suggested to him after the game that he might be just a bit paranoid about the officials, Patsos said, "They missed five block-charge calls - five!"
"With the score 2-0?"
"Well, no, but later . . . "
On Wednesday night, as has been the case most of this season, Patsos just coached. When a key call went against his team midway through the second half, he started to say something, but thought better of it; he started to yank his jacket off, but thought better of it; and walked behind the bench to pour himself a cup of water.
"I like the kids on this team," he said later. "I think they've really come together as a group of people in the last month and they've played hard most of the time and worked hard. Tonight was frustrating. We lose a kid who'd been playing really well and we couldn't overcome it."
The player lost was freshman Justin Drummond, whose playing time and role had increased steadily and who is probably the team's best three-point shooter. He pulled a trapezoid muscle in his back during a one-on-one drill on Tuesday and, after trying to warm up Wednesday, told Patsos he simply couldn't raise his arm above his head - which makes it hard to play basketball.
When he found out that Drummond couldn't go, Patsos told his players he needed someone to "pull a Willis Reed," a reference to the injured Knicks center's famous late entrance just before the start of Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
"I looked at the guys when I said that and I realize none of them had ever heard of Willis Reed," Patsos said, laughing. "Ruined my whole pregame talk."
Rider ruined his night with an unconscious second-half shooting performance (62 percent) that allowed it to overcome some remarkably bad ballhandling.
The loss dropped Loyola to 13-13 and, more important, 9-7 in the conference. The Greyhounds rebounded with a 75-57 nonconference win over Towson on Saturday. Even if they lose twice on the road next week, the lowest they will be seeded when the MAAC tournament begins in two weeks is sixth.
With two wins they could move up to third.
"The seeding doesn't matter," Patsos told his players. "What matters is we need to go up there and win three games. I believe you guys can do that. I really do."
He paused, and then the passionate Patsos came out again. "Have I ever told you guys that playing for me was going to be like having a vanilla ice cream cone? Or did I tell you it was going to be a roller coaster and you better be ready to hang on for dear life? You didn't hang on tonight, fellas. I know we missed Justin but you needed to hang on tight tonight and figure out a way to play just a little harder! But you couldn't do that. You just couldn't do that."
He ran his hand through the graying hair. "Okay, none of us is perfect, right?" He looked at Brian Rudolph, his only senior starter. "I'm yelling Brian, I know. I wanted your last home game to be a win so I'm frustrated.
"But I've yelled less this year, haven't I?"
"Yes, you have, Coach," Rudolph said. "A lot less."
Baby steps. A reason to celebrate.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.