Category Archives: Stories

A Season of Dreams Come True

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four.

The Chicago skyline lit in maroon and gold supporting Loyola in the NCAA Final Four. @zoegalland/via Twitter

This is the column I’ve been dreading having to write since a day or two before Loyola’s first NCAA Tournament game, nearly three weeks ago. Yes, of course I enjoyed every game, and most of the time between the games in Loyola’s amazing 2018 NCAA Tournament run. But I knew there was something like a 99-point-something chance the Ramblers would lose at some point in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And that it would be the end of a dream-come-true season for me, the most enjoyable season by far in my nearly 30 years of following Loyola hoops. And I would have to write about it.

The dreaded task of writing the obituary of the season; it would mean saying farewell to some great players, with endearing personalities I’ve come to know and admire. It would mean acknowledging the end of a season of wonder that smashed so many stubborn negative streaks and stereotypes that have held Loyola basketball back. Now I would have to instead wonder if Loyola could build on success, and how to help bring the conference up as well. And having it end suddenly, with an ignominious loss to an over-seeded Power Five program in the first or second round was going to be hard.

But time after time, the Ramblers pulled out inspiring victories against teams few thought they could beat, putting off the inevitable task until Loyola was in the Final Four. THE FINAL FOUR!

Put it in perspective… Loyola was picked to finish third in the MVC, a conference that almost everyone agreed would likely be a one-bid league after Wichita State’s exit. And even that seemed like a stretch for a lot of observers; this was a team that had never finished above .500 in the MVC, hadn’t had a winning conference season since 2007, and was 64 games under .500 in conference play over the past 10 years. Coach Porter Moser hadn’t had a winning season in conference as a head coach since guiding Arkansas-Little Rock to an 8-6 mark in 2003.

Even after the season got rolling and the Ramblers beat #5 Florida on the road, there were still question marks and setbacks. A blowout loss at Boise State was ugly and sobering. Custer and Richardson were lost to injury for a combined 15 games. A loss at Milwaukee and a home loss to Indiana State all but assured Loyola would have to win the MVC Tournament to get to the Big Dance.

On the morning of January 4, 2018, Loyola was 11-4 overall, and 1-2 in conference—with the next two games on the road against the two most recently successful programs in the MVC. Yes, there was the win at Florida, but the Gators had dropped out of the AP Top 25 by New Year’s Day. And Loyola’s second-best win at that point was a home W over Wright State.

The next game against UNI was the return of Clayton Custer from his ankle injury suffered against Florida. And from there, Loyola won 14 of their next 15 games to finish the regular season at 15-3. It was their first regular season conference championship since 1987. After beating UNI, Bradley, and Illinois State to win Arch Madness, the Ramblers won their first conference tournament title and secured their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1985.

And the “first since” and other milestones just kept coming: first Loyola tournament win since 1985, longest Loyola winning streak since 1985, first Sweet 16 by a team from Illinois since 2006, longest active winning streak in college basketball, first Elite Eight appearance for Loyola since 1963, first Elite Eight appearance by a team from Illinois since 2005, etc.

One other “first since” was Loyola’s first appearance on the national stage since the social media age began. And the stories and videos and memes of Sister Jean, Custer and Richardson’s friendship, the Wall of Culture, and Chicago latching on to the Ramblers as a feel-good story was made to blow up social media. Sometimes inspiring eye-rolls, and sometimes inspiring tears, Loyola also had a Final Four level Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Soundcloud and media game.

I knew there had to be a season-ending piece, but I had no idea it would take so long. Loyola blew past my main goal for the season, an NCAA Tournament appearance, with Donte Ingram’s beautiful three-point shot splashing at the buzzer against Miami. At that point I was more than satisfied. Then came Custer’s miracle, off-balance, running 20-foot jumper against #3 seed Tennessee that hit rim, bounced high off glass, and through. Then the Townes three against #7 Nevada. And a relative blowout against K-State. But that time, I was hoping against hope that I’d never have to write that column that ended with a loss.

Success always plays with your mind. And as Loyola had a 10-point lead midway in the second half against Michigan, it played hard. “Are we going to win this? I think we can win this! We’re going to win this! We are going to the National Championship Final!” It played so hard that the shift in the pace of the game being dictated by Michigan, and the slowly tightening noose of the Michigan defense were barely noticeable. Until the lead was down to 3. Then nothing. Then negative three. And negative six. Finally, 57-69.

I felt bad for the Loyola players who were taking it so hard, in large part because I wasn’t taking it so hard. I felt bad for the students on TV who went down to San Antonio and looked crushed when Loyola lost. I knew that the day would come to write the column that marked the end. But the players didn’t have any concept of an end to the season until it finally arrived, sudden and severe. That sincere #NoFinishLine belief by both players and fans was probably a big part of why they were in San Antonio on the last weekend of the college basketball season.

I remember watching Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson play in their first game as Ramblers, November 11, 2014. That was the year Loyola went to their first post-season tournament in 30 years, when Loyola won the CBI in Richardson and Ingram’s freshman year, part of Loyola’s first recruiting class as members of the MVC. Both of them took steps forward year by year, adding or improving a new facet to their game each off season. And they became steeped in the emerging Loyola culture, helping to integrate players like Lucas Williamson, Aundre Jackson, and Clayton Custer into the philosophy behind Loyola basketball.

As their college basketball careers end in the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio, Richardson and Ingram have been a part of 89 wins against 50 losses in their Loyola careers—the most wins for four-year players since—- EVER, for Loyola. Donte Ingram finishes his career with 1235 points, 688 rebounds, and 175 three-pointers. Ben Richardson ends with 761 points, 306 assists, and 302 rebounds. Both won prestigious league awards—Donte Ingram with the 2018 Second Team recognition and 2018 Arch Madness Most Outstanding Player, and Ben Richardson with the 2018 MVC Defensive Player of the Year award. Donte and Ben—and fellow seniors Aundre Jackson, Nick DiNardi and Carson Shanks– leave Loyola and their fans with banners, trophies, and memories. And most important, they’ve established a new sense of pride, and a culture of success in the program.

Thank you to everyone in the Loyola community—players, coaches, administrators, trainers, sports information, fans, students, and friends—who helped make this fantastic season happen.

Arch Madness 2018

This post will be updated with current information on Arch Madness 2018 as it becomes available.

The Basics

  • 2018 MVC Men’s Basketball Conference Tournament, a.k.a. Arch Madness
  • Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Missouri
  • March 1-4, 2018

Ticket Info

The Loyola sections are 104 and 105.

Hotel Info

Group rate hotel reservations for Loyola fans may be made at the team hotel, The Westin St. Louis (a 10 minute walk to Scottrade Center).

Game Schedule

Quarterfinals: Friday, 12:00 p.m.
Semifinals: Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Championship: Sunday, 1:00 p.m.

Other Events

Thurdsay, March 1: Alumni Relations Arch Madness Kickoff Event

Team Send-offs: Westin Hotel, 1 hour, 45 minutes before game times

Fan Postgame hangouts: The Wheelhouse (1000 Spruce, around the corner from the Westin)

2017-18 MVC Men’s Basketball Preview

The departure of Wichita State leaves the MVC with a void for a front-running men’s basketball program. The first few years of this wide-open, up-for-grabs opportunity will likely go a long way toward creating a new hierarchy in the conference. Most Loyola fans have been following the progress of the program rising toward the top half of the conference. Loyola has a chance to step up and seize the opportunity be a leader. Fortunately, the Ramblers are poised to do just that– with some highly-skilled and experienced returning players and two of the best recruiting classes in a decade or more.

But there are other programs in the conference that are going to challenge for the lead, and some rebuilding programs that may be on the cusp of success in 2017-18 or the near future. This is how we at Ramblermania see it shaking out for this season.

1. Missouri State

Even after losing several key members from last year’s team to graduation or transfer, the Bears are loaded with talent. Headlining the team is the versatile and athletic big man Alize Johnson. The 6’9” forward who was voted the MVC Preseason Player of the Year has shown he can do almost everything at a high level— shoot, rebound, drive, defend, hit threes, pass, and perform in crunch time. The only question marks are his passion and focus. Surrounding Johnson are talented juniors Obediah Church, Jarred Dixon, and Ryan Kreklow. Seniors Ronnie Rousseau and Jarrid Rhodes return, and will have a larger role than last season—Rhodes has been on fire from three point territory in exhibitions. Newcomers include juco forward Reggie Scurry, juco sophomore Grant Gelon, 7’2” grad transfer Tanveer Bhullar, redshirt freshman Greg Williams, and freshman point guard Mustafa Lawrence. Johnson missed the two exhibition games due to a knee injury, but should be ready to go for the first regular season game.

2. Loyola

Loyola has finished 10th, 6th, 8th, and 5th since joining the MVC in the 2013-14 season. But the Ramblers have never had the depth, experience or talent that they begin the season with in 2017-18.

See the Loyola Preview in full.

3. UNI

It’s a common assumption that Ben Jacobson is the best coach in the MVC since Wichita State left for the AAC. That premise will be tested this season as Northern Iowa adapts from losing two of their top three scorers who accounted for 32.9% of their total court minutes, 36.8% of their scoring, and 47.6% of their made three pointers. Senior forwards Bennet Koch and Klint Carlson will be the top returning players, and a lot of pressure will be on three sophomores to step up and excel: guards Spencer Haldeman and Juwan McCloud, and forward Luke McDonnell. Guard Wyatt Lohaus will be back from an ankle injury that caused him to miss all but six games last season, and freshman guard Tywhon Pickford may have a chance to make an immediate impact. The Panthers have a habit of unheralded players selected for their system rising to perform as well or better than their predecessors, and there’s reason to believe it will continue.

4. Southern Illinois

The Salukis have given the Ramblers fits under coach Barry Hinson (7-2 against Loyola join the MVC, 3-1 against LU in Chicago), and the new-look version for 2017-18 has a taller and more athletic look. Gone are point guard Mike Rodriguez and forward Sean O’Brien, the team’s two leading scorers last season. In are a group of promising returning players and some juco talent that quite likely will have the Salukis challenging for the top half of the league again. Senior forward Thik Bol was last year’s league leader in blocks and third in rebounds. He will likely be joined in the starting lineup by junior forward Sean Lloyd, shooting guard Armon Fletcher (in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in the league), and St. Louis transfer Marcus Bartley at point guard. Senior Tyler Smithpeters will be back to provide a long-range shooting threat after missing last season with an injury, and 6’10” juco center Kavion Pippen (yes– his nephew) will be another presence in the frontcourt.

5. Valparaiso

In their first year in the MVC, the Crusaders are supposedly rebuilding. They lost NBA draft pick Alec Peters and guard Shane Hammink, their two top scorers, from a 24-9 team that shared the Horizon League title. But the Crusaders have the highest average star rating in the MVC on, thanks in large part to newcomer guard/forward Joe Burton (an Oklahoma State transfer), 7’2” center Derrik Smits (yes—his son), and 6’2” newcomer point guard Bakari Evelyn (a Nebraska transfer). Second-year head coach Matt Lottich will need to make some major adjustments to integrate new players, but the players in the program have experience and expectations of winning, and the raw talent is there. Look for them as a top contender for 2018-19.

6. Illinois State

The Redbirds lost a whole lot after their conference co-title in 2016-17. In losing the services of MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins, Mikyle McIntosh, Tony Wills, and D.J. Clayton (66.1% of their total minutes and 73.2% of their total points last season), they’re going to have an entirely new personality as a team. Forward Phil Fayne and guard Keyshawn Evans will be back, and forward Malik Yarborough (a St. Louis transfer who averaged 9 ppg and 4.7 rpg with the Bilikens) will be available. But no one else will have more than 500 minutes of D1 game experience, and because of the late transfers, some of the juco replacements may be acquired from haste. Point guard Elijah Clarance and forward Tyler Bruninga are high-potential freshmen. Mueller is considered a plus coach, and there’s enough talent at key positions to field a contender, but it won’t be an easy ride this year.

7. Bradley

There is a lot of experience and some capable talent on Coach Wardle’s team, but as his highly touted first recruiting class enters their junior seasons, the wins haven’t started coming often enough. Whether that’s due to strategy and x’s and o’s or the need to reassess the talent will probably be decided this year. Bradley should be slated for 4th or 5th place team by this point in their rebuilding process, but the middle of the pack in the MVC has improved quite a bit over the past two years. One thing the Braves have a lot of is depth, with several bodies and many fouls to give. Look for sophomore point guard Darrell Brown and center Koch Bar to have breakout seasons. If other teams in the middle of the pack sustain an injury or two, Bradley could very easily move up into the 5th or 6th spot.

8. Indiana State

Just a couple years ago, it was thought that Indiana State had a chance to catch fire, with a fantastic coach who was able to get the most out of the program with the lowest budget in the league. Unfortunately, entering their fourth year after the departure of Jake Odum– who made average players very good in guiding the Sycamores to one NCAA, one NIT, and four consecutive seasons of being well above .500, the Trees are back to their pre-Odom norm. Senior guard Brenton Scott is a legit MVC first team pick who averaged 15.9 points per game last year while leading the league with 206 made threes (for comparison, 206 threes would rank 2nd for a career at Loyola). But ISUb’s second, third, and fourth top scorers and top and third-best rebounders are gone from a team that finished 11-20 overall and 5-13 in conference. The Sycamores get the nod for the best of the bottom three by virtue of having the best individual player among and perhaps the best coach, but they’re going to have to fill a lot of crunch time minutes with inexperienced or unproven newcomers.

9. Drake

Drake is on their fourth head coach in the past six years, Niko Medved, via Furman University. He inherits a team full of seniors who were highly regarded when they signed at Drake, but have not had the player development or opportunity to excel. There have been glimpses of impressive potential from a lot of these players, like Reed Timmer, CJ Rivers, De’Antae McMurray, and Ore Arogundade—all talented senior guards. Two serviceable big men– Korey Kuenstling and Casey Schlatter, both juniors standing over 6’10”—should provide enough pieces for an exceptional coach to fashion a team that can surprise a few middle-of-the-pack teams.

10. Evansville

The Aces lost Jaylon Brown, the league leader in minutes, points, points per game, field goals, free throws made, and free throw percentage. They also lost top rebounder David Howard, and versatile guard Christian Benson. That’s a lot to lose on an ordinary team, but talent development suffered when the Aces pushed for an NCAA bid and came up short in 2015-16. Six-three senior guard Duane Gibson, 6’5” senior guard Blake Simmons, and 6’6” junior guard/forward Ryan Taylor are the only three players on the Aces with more than 700 minutes of Division I experience. Juco newcomer Dainius Chatkevicius, a 6’9” 240 pound forward from Vincennes University might be able to make an impact, but no one appears able to replace the significant losses from last year’s 16-17 team that finished 8th in the MVC. Coach Marty Simmons has always relied heavily on his core starting five players, but this year he’ll have only four players with any experience or reasonable expectation of immediate impact. The rest will be a patchwork of previously seldom-used jucos, freshmen, and… who knows?

Agree? Disagree? Outrage? Peaceful sense of zen? Talk about it on the Ramblermania message board.