CHICAGO — Good grief. Just look at that thing. Stare at it. Stare long and hard and try to digest, process, comprehend. Even in what has become a kaleidoscopic national college basketball season, one could travel from Nevada nirvana to Tennessee tempest to all the contending Dukes and Virginias and Gonzagas strewn about, yet still not spot a sight to top that thing up there all by itself.
The very presence of a 2018 Final Four banner in this spotless gumdrop of a 4,963-seat gym at Loyola Chicago is a marvel in this big-money, big-conference-tilted era. In this delight of an unostentatious gym tucked into a metropolis — which just last season hosted basketball crowds such as 1,103, 1,135 and 1,133 — the Final Four banner has one side to itself, across from the banners for Loyola’s 1963 men’s basketball national champions and the two national titles this decade from its men’s volleyball marvels.
It also hovers as some sort of goblin.
The very otherworldliness of that banner meant the “outside noise” so dreaded among all sports teams would ring louder here than it would at, say, Kentucky. It’s a reminder that even as Sister Jean, a rock star at 99 years old, is still here to begin a home game by reading a prayer that includes asking for zero injuries and one “big W,” Coach Porter Moser’s program must play this season plying the hard, hard art of following upon the spectacular.
“There was a ton of noise,” Moser said last week in his office. “We’d do an interview, you’d be thinking it’s about this year’s team, and it was about last year’s team. There was so much noise that we couldn’t get past last year. You know, everything was constantly about last year, last year, last year, last year, last year, last year. And this is this year. There’s guys on the team who weren’t on last year’s team.
“Last year will always be symbolic about who we are and where we’re going, but we’ve got to keep chasing. And that’s the thing that I’m consumed with. Man, we’ve got to be looking out our windshield, not our rearview mirror. That was difficult. That was very, very difficult.”
So the Ramblers began this season 7-6. They lost to Furman at home, to Boston College in Florida, to Nevada at home, to Ball State at home, to Maryland in Baltimore, to Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia. With three mainstays gone from last season, three mainstays back and then one mainstay injured (Lucas Williamson), they understandably lost sight of themselves, with even their senior leaders pressing, as if they tried to make the Final Four in November, when not even Mike Krzyzewski has ever made a Final Four in November.
“I feel like in the beginning of the season for us, I feel like we lost sight of the process, just looking at the bright light down in the tunnel, and we weren’t focusing on what makes us good,” redshirt senior guard Marques Townes said. By late January at 13-8, he said, “We could be sitting here talking about how we’re 16-and-whatever number of losses.” He said, “I feel like now we’re just trying to find ourselves . . .”
They reached 15-9 on Tuesday night with an 86-64 defeat of visiting Drake. They righted themselves to sit atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings even if, wait, look, that’s more noise: They’re pointedly refraining from studying the conference standings. They have a fuller home gym with the two-color scarves clearly a must-have and with 3,011 showing up in deadly weather last week for a win over Northern Iowa. They have fuller road gyms, such as the 8,107 at Illinois State after 4,466 last season, or 4,279 at Drake after 3,522 last season, or the 10,200 at Indiana State who turned out to recollect the 1979 team that reached the final two with Larry Bird a big help in that.
The signals flashed early. Moser sought somebody with comparable experience, so he went last offseason to Boston to mine the fertile mind of Celtics Coach Brad Stevens, whose Butler team reached the 2010 Final Four (and national final) and then, almost absurdly, reached the 2011 Final Four (and national final).
“And luckily, Matt Howard [from that team] was there visiting Brad. So I got to sit both of them down, and talk to Matt about it. And Matt, you could just see him, physically, you could just see him putting himself mentally back at that time. And he said, ‘I was miserable. Because we were 14-9, just lost to Youngstown State. I was having the worst time in basketball.’ The worst time? Butler? You just went to the Final Four! And now I realize what he was saying. Because it’s just so much. It’s either win or failure. It was so much pressure, just to be back.”
As Stevens had reassured his Butler players, “Your legacy at Butler is always going to be set,” Moser said, “I could just see [redshirt senior Clayton] Custer and Townes, early on they were just pressing so hard. They were wanting to do everything themselves. You know, they didn’t want to let it down. It wasn’t selfish. It was just, they didn’t want to let anybody down. They wanted to do it. They were pressing.
“Part of what made us good is we were strength in numbers. We were sharing it. We were moving it. And we just, and I pulled them aside and I just said, ‘You guys, you’re in the Mount Rushmore of Loyola basketball forever.’ We just need to have some fun with this. We need to learn to trust the young guys. We’ll be better in the long run. We might take some lumps, trying to trust everybody, but like last year, we’ll be playing our best come January, February, March.”
After the Ramblers scrimmaged in October with Indiana in Indianapolis, Hoosiers Coach Archie Miller told Moser how pumped his Indiana team had felt to play Loyola, and that floored Moser with a hint of the you’re-a-target reality. Moser mulled staying out of the gym during the ceremonial lifting of the Final Four banner to open the season to make a point before his wife, Megan, reminded him he owed his presence to the fans.
A zigzagging recent sequence exemplified the hard art of following up: On Jan. 19, the Ramblers overcame that Indiana State crowd by 75-67, and Moser thought his guys mastered the “Embrace the Target” posture the coach echoes from Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon. On Jan. 23, they went to Missouri State for the next game, noticed the court end zones filled more than usual and dispensed a remarkable 70-35 loss, managing a number of rebounds one might get literally by standing still: nine. On Jan. 27, trailing Southern Illinois 12-7, they went on your everyday 23-0 run as home fans reveled and monitored Moser’s customary jacket removal (15:48, second half) on the way to a 75-50 mastery.
They did all this while the spring of 2018 lives and burns on, while Moser still can talk about how Chicagoan fans have used an unexpected terminology toward him: “Thank you.”
They thanked him because a Final Four surge makes old classmates reunite in a way they hadn’t otherwise, because Chicago loves it some grit. The thanks stay in the air while Moser and his staff and his players try to solve 2019 in a snobby national system built to snub the mid-majors, where the Missouri Valley Conference tournament chase for the one bid might be really something.
Meanwhile, man, that damned banner is really, really something.