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Ramblermania’s 2022-23 A-10 Preview

It’s Loyola’s first year in the A-10, and most people think the Ramblers have a chance to finish in the top third of the league.  I’ll admit, I was concerned about the adjustment to the new league and all that comes with it– new travel destinations, lack of familiarity with other teams, extra travel time, higher average athletic budgets in the new conference, and new/unfamiliar playing fields.

Loyola’s adjustment to the MVC took 1-3 years in my opinion.  But so far, the fall sports have shown that the gap between MVC and A-10 performance on the field isn’t nearly as large as the Horizon League-MVC gap.  Loyola finished 8th of 15 teams in women’s soccer (barely making the conference tournament), 4th in men’s soccer, first in both the men’s and women’s cross country championships, and currently rank first in women’s volleyball. 

The other thing that’s helpful for Loyola men’s basketball in the new conference is the sheer number of teams with new or first-year coaches.  Davidson, Fordham, LaSalle, UMass, Rhode Island, and George Washington all have new coaches with (for the most part) different philosophies; some of them will have teams that were put together out of a shell of a previous regime with newcomers added out of the transfer portal.

Here’s how I see the conference shaping up for the 2022-23 season:

1.  Dayton

The Flyers just barely missed the tournament last season with one of the youngest teams in college hoops.  Moreover, Dayton got noticably better as the season went on. Everybody’s back, except this year, all their freshmen have had an off season with college-level strength, endurance, nutrition, and performance training.  Add the fact that Dayton has one of the best home court advantages with the league’s highest attendance, and I give an edge to the Flyers to take the conference.

2.  Saint Louis

Travis Ford’s Billikens have the most collective experience, the best floor general (Yuri Collins, who led all of college basketball in assists last year), and one of the top players in the league in senior Javonte Perkins returning from an ACL injury.

3.  VCU

Two things I’ve always admired in a team are interchangeable, multi-skilled players, and playing hard defense.  The former allows teams to switch more easily on defense and creates mismatches on offense against most teams, and the latter ensures that the focus never lets up. That’s what the VCU program is, and they have another great crop of players to carry it out this season.

VCU is likely to play a three-forward, two guard lineup with the forwards between 6’9″and 6’7″, a shooting guard at 6’4″, and a point guard at 6’1″. They recruit for length and quickness, and they have a pretty clear game plan, so the fact that they’re likely to start one senior, one junior, and three sophomores isn’t likely to slow them down.

Under sixth-year Coach Mike Rhodes, VCU has never won fewer than 18 games, only once had a KenPom ranking out of the top 100 (his first season), never finished below .500 in conference, and reached the NCAA Tournament twice– once with an 8 seed in 2019, and once with a 10 seed in 2021. 

4.  Davidson

Yes, Davidson has a new coach, but not really. Legendary longtime coach Bob McKillop stepped down in June of this year, and his son Matt will be taking over without missing a beat. The regular season A-10 champions and an at large tournament team last year, Davidson lost two fantastic players in 6’10 forward Luka Brajkovic and 6’7″ three point marvel Hyunjung Lee.  I remember seeing Lee take over the game at Loyola in 2019 with 19 of Davidson’s 59 points off the bench as a freshman.  But the Davidson pipeline of intriguing and often underestimated foreign players continues, with players like 6’9″ Sam Menenga from New Zealand, and players from Iceland, Italy, and Switzerland.

Bob’s son Matt is probably so immersed in the culture of the Wildcats, and Belk Arena is such a tough place to play that I doubt they will slide as far as others expect– especially in a season where the league has a lot of parity from 3rd place to 7th.

5.  Loyola

I’m going to put Loyola here. The Ramblers have a very tough schedule in the league, facing Dayton, George Mason, and Saint Louis twice each, and getting Davidson on the road.  The month of January is especially brutal; I wouldn’t be surprised if Loyola is 4-5 on Feb. 1. 

Jalen Quinn looks like a top candidate for A-10 freshman of the year.  Philip Alston has the physicality, athleticism and aggressiveness needed for a league with more NBA prospects than the MVC. Braden Norris and Tom Welch will help coordinate the offense and defense with newcomers like Bryce Golden, Sheldon Edwards, Ben Schweiger, Jeameril Wilson, Trey Lewis, and Jayden Dawson. 

The key part of the season in my opinion are the three games from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, six days that will quite possibly decide the season:  Jan. 4 at Davidson, Jan. 7 at George Mason, and Jan. 10 at home vs. VCU.  With wins in 2 or 3 of those games, the Ramblers will likely get a bye into the quarterfinals in Brooklyn;  one win probably yields sixth place; zero wins in those three and Loyola’s joining “the Wednesday night pillow fight,” as one A-10 fan called it.

6.  George Mason

Coach Kim English took over at George Mason last season and surprised almost everyone with a 14-16 campaign and a 7-9 league mark.  Mason will most probably be starting four seniors and a freshman this season, but they could have five seniors on the floor whenever they want.

Last year Mason knocked off Richmond, Dayton, and St. Bonaventure, three of the best teams in the league.  Not coincidentally, Mason features one of the best individual players in the A-10, 6’9″ 235-pound Josh Oduro, who averaged 17.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game as a junior last season.  The Patriots have also used the transfer portal to add upperclassmen from Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and New Mexico.

7.   Richmond

Last year’s A-10 Conference Tournament champion lost two great players that are legends in the program, Jacob Gilyard (now the all time steals leader in D-I) and Grant Golden.

Coach Chris Mooney is back, and so is A-10 first-teamer Tyler Burton. Familiar names like Matt Grace and Andre Guftavson have returned. The Spiders have also added a 7′ transfer from Lafayette and two big guard/forwards from Wofford and The Citadel. After McKillop’s retirement at Davidson, Mooney is now the dean of A-10 coaches in his 18th year at Richmond after taking over from Jerry Wainright (who left for DePaul).

8.  UMass

Frank Martin takes over at UMass this year, and will have a big re-building program. The Minutemen have only had one winning season in the past seven (an 8-7 record in the pandemic year), and haven’t been to the tournament since 2014.

Martin has a Final Four under his belt from South Carolina in 2017 and an Elite Eight from Kansas State in 2010, and you can already feel the change in attitude from the UMass fans from this bold hire. The Minutemen were picked to finish 8th in the A-10 Preseason Poll.  The Almanac has UMass 9th, and KenPom slots them 11th.

9.  Rhode Island

Archie Miller is back in the A-10 after a sojourn of sorts to Indiana. Rhody is known as a place to burnish coaching credentials, having hired the likes of Jim Harrick, Al Skinner, and Dan Hurley.  If Miller can turn around Rhode Island, how long will he stay?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?  Rhode Island hasn’t been to the tournament since the back-to-back trips in the last two Dan Hurley years.  So only twice since 1999.  URI was 11th in the league last year, 5-12 in conference play. The Rams are picked 9th by The Almanac, 10th by KenPom, and 9th in the A-10 preseason poll.

10.  St. Bonaventure

After a really great run with some special talent over the past five years, Mark Schmidt came into this season with the challenge of stocking a program with high expectations and a fervent fan base right away. 

Last year, St. Bonaventure knocked off three power programs before losing to Xavier in the NIT semifinals.  Schmidt relied on a tight rotation of six or seven key players.  This year, St. Bonaventure had the nation’s lowest percentage of returning scorers coming into this season, just four points from a sophomore, which comes out to .004 of the Bona’s total scoring from last season.

But look at the track record:  Since 2016, Schmidt has piloted the Bonnies to A-10 finishes of a tie for first, fifth, second, fourth, tie for fifth, first, and fourth.  So even with not much in the cupboard, it’s a safe bet Schmidt can come up with something.

11.  Fordham

After first-year Head Coach Kyle Neptune took Fordham up to rarefied heights last season– a .500 record and the middle of the A-10 standings– he was hired away to replace his mentor as head coach at Villanova.  Neptune’s top assistant Keith Urgo was tabbed to try to keep Fordham competitive with the improved competitive philosophy brought in by Neptune.  Many people are slating the Rams for a lower seeding (The Almanac picked them for 13th ) , but I feel like their young talent like will improve and keep them a little higher than the bottom four.

12.  Duquesne

The Dukes are supposed to have a new attitude and a lot of great talent for Head Coach Keith Dambrot.  Before last season’s terrible 1-16 A-10 league finish, the Dukes had been headed in the right direction under Dambrot, the former high school coach of LeBron James and college Head Coach at Akron.

Problems the past two years closing out close games and locker room management questions have swirled around the program, but clearing out some of the locker room and bringing in a lot of new talent via transfer is supposed to help.  Still, the new players don’t have a lot of size. 

13.  St. Joseph’s

It’s year four of the Billy Lange era at St. Joe’s.  Lange took over after St. Joe’s legend Phil Martelli was er, unceremoniously let go after a 14-19 season in 2018-19.  One of those 14 wins that season was against Loyola in an ugly 45-42 game at the Palestra.  In the years since, Lange’s Hawks have gone 6-26, 5-15, and 11-19.  Gotta give people a pass on at least one year for Covid, but not looking too good.

Lange was hired from the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, and his philosophy is to run an NBA-style offense.  I suppose the theory is that it’s good for student athletes seeking a pro career, it’s more exciting for fans, and it’s the trajectory of college basketball is headed that way.  A large part of his plan was thwarted by COVID shutdowns. A fair number of fans were angry about the way 24-year veteran Phil Martelli (with a college coaching record of 444-328) was let go– or that he was let go at all. 

I watched the St. Joe’s exhibition against a .500 Division III team that scored 80 points in Hagan Arena last week, and it feels like if you’re going to play that way you should have at least one or two guys who have NBA bodies/skills and a better defensive scheme.  

14.  LaSalle

LaSalle is one of those great urban college basketball programs that appeal to Loyola fans. They’re the 1954 NCAA National Champions (and they beat Bradley for the title), a former MCC conference foe, home of Lionel Simmons (the Philly version of Alfredrick Hughes), and a team that usually gets pretty far in the tournament when they get there.  Unfortunately, the last time LaSalle got to the tournament was 2013, when they got to the Sweet 16 as a 13 seed.  

Legendary Philly Coach Fran Dunphy (580-325 career college coaching record at Penn and Temple) was tabbed last spring to be the new Head Coach at LaSalle at age 73.  He’s charged with putting a winning group out on the floor, and he’s using every trick of the trade he knows to get it done. He’s put together a roster of a lot of unknown foreign players, a couple of returning guards, a wing, and a big man. 

Just tactically, you figure Coach Dunphy can make some improvements, but the league is probably also better overall than it was last year. The Almanac picked LaSalle for 15th, and the A-10 Preseason poll had them at 14th.

15.  George Washington

New head coach Chris Caputo takes over a team that played well in conference after a rough start to last season.  Their 2nd and 3rd leading scorers transferred out when the coach was replaced. Coming in are Kansas State transfer Maximus Edwards.

Caputo comes from the Jim Larranaga coaching tree, so it’s a bit ironic that he’d start his head coaching career across town in the same league as the source of Larranaga’s first success.  But assuming he succeeds at George Washington, it will take a few year.  

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The 25 Best Loyola Men’s Basketball Teams of All Time: Part 5 (The Top 5)

No. 5

The 2020-21 Loyola Ramblers:  The Peak of The Moser Years

25-5, 16-2 Missouri Valley (1st Place), Sweet 16

Coach Porter Moser put Loyola back on the college basketball map with a total rebuild that began in 2011 and culminated in a Final Four in 2018. But the team sputtered a bit in 2019 and 2020, losing at Arch Madness in the semi and quarter-finals.  So after a Final Four, there was a one-and-done NIT and an unlikely postseason chance as a pandemic shut down sports and much of society.

The COVID-19 pandemic that eliminated the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was still raging at the start of the 2020-21 season. Just before the 2020 season was set to begin, 11 Ramblers were diagnosed with the virus.  That shut down the opening of the season, cancelled the MTE (Loyola’s best chance at establishing a non-con resume), and upset the practice schedule.  Loyola (and many other teams) were suddenly scrambling for opportunities to replace some resume-building opportunities.

Loyola lost to Wisconsin, 77-63. There were few opportunities for Q1 wins.

Loyola wasn’t able to get their season started until Dec. 5, and was only able to schedule seven non-conference games, only five of them against Division I teams. On Dec. 15, the Ramblers got a hastily-scheduled game against Wisconsin in Madison because the Badgers had an opponent get a positive COVID case.  Loyola performed well in most of the first half, then came out flat in the second half, losing 77-63.  In another short-notice game against A10 favorite Richmond at a neutral site, the Spiders were up by 15 at halftime before Loyola closed the gap late. The final was Richmond 75, Loyola 73.  When there was a gap in play because of an early cancellation of conference games, the Ramblers made the best of it by scheduling a non-con against CUSA contender North Texas.  Loyola won that game at Gentile, 57-49, against an eventual tournament team.

To avoid unnecessary and excessive person to person contact and travel during the pandemic, the MVC scheduled back-to-back games in random home or away pairs. The exception was games with the nearby travel partner, which would remain home and road. In a conference as competitive as the Valley, where road wins are at a premium even for the very good teams, it seemed like a particularly daunting challenge.

And boom, sure enough, the Ramblers lost the front end game of their first conference road trip to Indiana State.  That put Loyola at 7-3 overall, 2-1 in conference, with a KenPom of 45.  Not so good for the Ramblers with no more space to fit in a non-con resume-builder.  But the next night Loyola avenged their loss to Indiana State and reeled off 11 wins in a row.  The most impressive stretch featured five away games in a row against Valpo, two at Bradley, and two at Missouri State in which Loyola won all five by an average of 20.4 points.

Without any Q1 non-con games to boost the resume, Loyola relied on building their KenPom efficiency numbers, and the Pomeroy numbers shot up during the 11-game streak in which 10 of the 11 wins were by double digits.  The 45 KenPom after the loss at Indiana State shot up to 10 after Loyola won its 11th in a row at Drake.  The Drake Bulldogs were the other unexpected story of 2020-21.  Coach Darian DeVries’ tea started off the year 18-0 before their first loss at Valpo.  By the time Loyola beat them 81-54 in Des Moines to open their two game series, Drake was at 57 in KenPom.

So now Loyola had a 10-point win over CUSA leader North Texas and a 27-point road win over a KenPom 57… there’s your Q1 win!  Seems the 27-point smack down was a little too much for Drake to abide, so the next day they fought, scratched, and willed their way to a 51-50 overtime win after they seemed done in regulation.  That win over the Ramblers and the rest of their body of work (25-4 on Selection Sunday) was enough to get them an at large NCAA bid to the First Four, where they beat Wichita State. 

Loyola won the MVC regular season with a 16-2 record.  Taking no chances at Arch Madness, they won their three games in the conference tournament by an average of 16.7 points.  It was the third regular season conference championship and second conference tournament championship in four years.  It happened at a moment when college basketball prognosticators realized the value of efficiency metrics, and Loyola went into Selection Sunday ranked #9 in KenPom. But there were no wins against P5 teams, so where to put them?  The NCAA decided on an 8 seed.

In the NCAA Tournament, Loyola faced a banged-up Georgia Tech team that shocked the ACC with a run to the title.  The Ramblers beat the Yellow Jackets somewhat easily, winning 71-60.  That put Loyola on a collision course with the Illini, who won the Big Ten conference tournament and ranked #2 in all of college basketball in KenPom. 

Loyola vs. Illinois in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. USAToday

Famously, the Ramblers embarrassed the Illini with a 71-58 humiliation in which they were out-played in every phase of the game.  That win, knocking out the #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 just four years after a Final Four, was the game that cemented Loyola as a program that had arrived, and not just Cinderella or a one-hit wonder.

The Ramblers lost their Sweet 16 game against Oregon State (coached by former Alumni Gym gym rat Wayne Tinkle).  And the inevitable happened– Coach Moser took a big money job at a P5 school, Oklahoma. Cameron Krutwig decided to move on as well, to a pro career.  Drew Valentine was promoted to Head Coach, the youngest in Division I.  And less than eight months later, Loyola accepted an invitation to join the A10.

No. 4

The 1948-49 Loyola Ramblers:  From No Program at All to a National Title Game in 4 Years

25-6, NIT Runner Up

Loyola’s Hall of Fame Coach Lenny Sachs died suddenly at the age of 45 in the first year of World War II, when young men of college age were opting for the military out of high school or putting their college studies on hold.  Coach Sachs died a few weeks before the men’s basketball season, and assistant John Connelly took over to lead Loyola to a 12-10 record.  But without a permanent head coach and a war raging, Loyola put the program in sleep mode for the rest of the war.

Bluitt scores against Kentucky. Rupp and UK wouldn’t have an African-American player on their team for 21 more years.

After two full years with no team at all, Loyola tabbed former DePaul Coach, military veteran, and seated DePaul Athletic Director Thomas Haggerty to re-start the Loyola basketball program. Building slowly and surely, Haggerty recruited some great talent:  6’6″ power forward Jack Kerris out of Chicago De La Salle was a star– holding the Loyola career scoring record of 1556 until Harkness broke it in 1963.  Gerry Nagel was the point guard, Don Hanrahan a guard/forward, and Ed Earle more of a muscular forward who could handle the ball; all three had at least a year in the nascent NBA. Air Force veteran Ben Bluitt was the first African-American Loyola men’s basketball player in 1946; he played sixth man, and added length and leap to the skill set.  Bluitt coached high school in Chicago, was an assistant to Dick Viatle at Detroit, and became the second Black head coach in the Ivy League at Cornell.

NIT second round against #1 Kentucky.

Loyola’s 1949 regular season featured wins over Big Ten teams Wisconsin and Purdue on the road, a home/road sweep over Marquette, a road win over NIT entrant St. John’s, a 14-point win at St. Bonaventure, and a 32-point home win over Villanova.     

The 1948-49 team suffered three regular season one-point road losses:  A 45-44 road loss at Toledo, a 59-58 loss at #14 Holy Cross (featuring Bob Cousy), and a 52-51 overtime loss at Duquesne.  Loyola also split home and road games with DePaul and Bowling Green.

It’s important to remember that in 1949, the NIT had more participants (12) than the NCAA Tournament (8).  And that’s even with some schools (Kentucky in 1949, CCNY in 1950) sometimes entering BOTH tournaments.  So the NIT still had a lot of relevance, and many people thought it was more prestigious. 

Loyola’s first opponent was CCNY, who would win BOTH the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in 1950, the only time any team would do so.  The Ramblers won 62-47 in that NIT play-in round at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 1949.  Next up was #1 Kentucky– Loyola beat the #1 Wildcats 61-56 on March 14, 1949– and Kentucky went on to play in the NCAA Tournament where they won the National Championship.

On March 17, 1949, Loyola beat #7 Bradley to advance to the NIT Final. This set up the final game, on Saturday, March 19, 1949, with Loyola (an unexpected underdog who was supposed to lose to Kentucky) facing off against San Francisco (an unexpected underdog who was supposed to lose to Saint Louis or Utah).

In the final, USF got out to a lead, but Loyola fought back and tied the game at 47-all in the closing 90 seconds. This is where USF Coach Pete Newell was pretty clever, and his team was able to execute.  When USF got a free throw, the 48-47 lead, and the ball, they held it. In the the late 40s, the rule was when you got fouled, you had a choice between free throws OR keeping possession and inbounding. USF chose to inbound after every foul, and Loyola never got possession back.

Newell’s NIT Championship strategy got him hired away by Michigan State in 1950, and in the late 50s he returned to Northern California to coach Cal to the 1959 NCAA Championship. (That’s right, CAL has a Natty!)

Still, the Ramblers beat #1 Kentucky in the NIT, just two weeks before Kentucky won the NCAA Tournament and the National Championship. Here is the radio broadcast from Madison Square Garden in 1949, if you don’t believe it…

No. 3

The 1928-29 Loyola Ramblers: An Undefeated Season in the Middle of a 31-Game Winning Streak

16-0

The 1928-29 Loyola Ramblers

In 1929, there was no KenPom, SRS, RPI, or any other accurate metrics to compare one team against another.  There were few statistics beyond final game scores. And postseason championship tournaments were still nine years away.  So I’m working off of my estimates and knowledge of the era and conditions to fill in some of the hard numbers that supported the rankings of the other teams.

The Helms Foundation was created in the 1930s as an organization to promote amateur athletics, and in 1943 they began naming college basketball national champions (considering both the NCAA and NIT tournaments and the body of work in the regular season). In the 1950s, they released a retroactive list of their declared champions from the years before postseason tournaments.  Their selection for the men’s basketball championship of 1928-29 was Montana State, a team that went 36-2 against anyone and everyone they could schedule, in an era when 22 games was on the high average end of total games played.  

The 1928-29 team was the squad that launched Loyola from a smaller, regional program to a national power in college basketball.  Coach Lenny Sachs—inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961—had only three seasons under .500 from 1925 to 1942. In that span, he won 212 games against 107 losses, and had two undefeated regular seasons. 

Charlie “Feed” Murphy out of De La Salle High School was a two time All-American

The thing that propelled Sachs and Loyola into the upper echelon of college basketball was the fact that the National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament was held at Loyola’s Alumni Gym from 1924 through 1941.  Loyola had the best Catholic school basketball players coming to campus each and every year, with Coach Sachs there to recruit them.  When the 1928 and 1929 teams took off, Coach Sachs showed that he could do a lot with raw talent he saw at the high school tournament.

The 1928-29 Loyola Ramblers began the season with a four-game winning streak held over from the 1927-28 team, and went on to an undefeated season at 16-0.  Two of Loyola’s close wins were against Saint Louis, which was 14-4 that season and twice beat the MVC champion.

Loyola was the only undefeated team in 1928-29, and beat their opponents by an average of 23% per game (27.38 to 17.06).  The Ramblers played a solid schedule at the time, maybe not the most challenging schedule, but still undefeated. North Carolina’s 34-game winning streak from 1923-25 featured several non-college amateur teams, such as the Durham Elks Club, Charlotte YMCA, etc. That was a fairly common practice back then. But Loyola played all college teams in their 1928-29 season.

The key thing about Loyola dominance in 1928-29 was that it came in the middle of a 31-game winning streak that began on Feb. 18, 1928 with a 27-18 win over Lombard College (Carl Sandburg’s alma mater), and ended with a 25-20 overtime loss at Purdue (featuring a sophomore star named John Wooden) on Jan 30, 1930.  As part of that streak, the Ramblers defeated Xavier five times; Detroit three times; Saint Louis, Dayton, Bradley, Western Michigan, and North Dakota twice; and Butler, Vanderbilt, Duquesne, Arkansas State, South Dakota State, and Montana State (the defending Helms Champion from 1928-29) once.

A couple weeks after the 31-game streak ended at Purdue in the 1929-30 season, Loyola went on to defeat North Carolina, the team that held the record for the longest winning streak (34 games, from 1923-1925).  That North Carolina team from 1923-25 counted victories against the Durham Elks (twice), Charlotte YMCA, and other assorted opponents as wins.  Yes, Loyola played some weaklings also, but at least they were other colleges.    

The top player on that 1928-29 team was Charlie “Feed” Murphy, a 6’4″ forward who earned All-American honors in 1929 and 1930.  Murphy started playing pro out of college for a variety of teams, including the Chicago Bruins, Oshkosh All Stars, and Chicago Duffy Florals. 

No. 2

The 1938-39 Loyola Ramblers:  Undefeated Regular Season, The Pinnacle of Coach Sachs’ Career

22-1, NIT Runner Up

Ten years after his first undefeated season, Loyola Coach Lenny Sachs put together one of the great teams in college basketball for another undefeated schedule. In 1929, there was no such thing as a postseason tournament, so he did everything possible to build Loyola’s reputation though better scheduling, and made innovations in defensive schemes. In 1935, after earning a Master’s degree at Loyola, he was elevated to Athletic Director.

The 1938-39 Ramblers,

Coach Sachs’ 1929 team and the 31-game winning streak from 1928 to 1930 was overlooked by a lot of college basketball fans.  Beginning in 1929-30, Coach Sachs really stepped up his scheduling, getting games with Purdue, North Carolina, and others. 

Knowing he had a fantastic team in 1938-39, Coach Sachs got the big enrollment, football dominant schools on the schedule and picked out some good Independent college hoops squads.  Columbia (Ivy League), Chicago (Big Ten), Michigan State, Santa Clara, Villanova (an NCAA  Final Four team that Loyola defeated 51-32), Drake (MVC Champion that Loyola beat twice by a combined 25 points), Toledo x2 (with a 17-10 record), and George Washington (13-8 record).

Wibs Kautz in Alumni Gym

Led by 6’0″ senior guard Wibs Kautz (16 points per game) and 6’9″ senior center Mike Novak (consensus All-American), the Ramblers plowed through the schedule, defeating their opponents by an average of 15.7 points per game during the regular season.  The Ramblers started four seniors and a sophomore, so they played well together as a unit. Kautz and Novak both played together at Tilden High School before coming to Loyola, and they both played professionally on the nascent teams that eventually became the NBA.

Loyola was 20-0 at the end of the regular season, and accepted an invite to the 1939 NIT, the second year of the tournament.  In response to the NIT, the NCAA was starting their own tournament in 1939.  There were 6 teams in the NIT:  Bradley, Loyola, Roanoke, Long Island, New Mexico A&M, and St. John’s. LIU and Loyola were both undefeated.   There were 8 teams in the NCAA Tournament:  Brown, Ohio State, Villanova, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Utah State.  In the NIT, both Loyola and Long Island were undefeated.  In the NCAA, Loyola had defeated Villanova by 19, and three NCAA teams had six or more losses.

The Ramblers defeated St. John’s 51-46 in overtime in the semifinal game, which was really more like a road game at Madison Square Garden.  That set up the NIT final between two undefeated teams:  Loyola at 21-0 and Long Island University at 20-0.  LIU beat New Mexico State and Bradley to reach the final, winning a play-in to reach the final game.  The NIT had full houses of more than 18,000 at MSG, while the first year of the NCAA Tournament attracted  a near-capacity crowd of 4000 to 5000 at Patten Gym in Evanston. 

In the Final, the Ramblers were abysmal, wilting under the pressure of an 18,000-voice hostile crowd.  Loyola scored only 32 points, their lowest output of the season, while the hosts put up 44.  The Helms Foundation, in their retroactive declaration of national championships declared that the NIT Champs Long Island University were the real national champions, not the NCAA Tournament winner Oregon.

No. 1

The 1962-63 Loyola Ramblers:  The Greatest, Most Impactful College Basketball Season Ever

29-2 Overall, National Champions

There could only be this team as the best ever in Loyola history.  Looking at the best teams ever from a Loyola perspective is enlightening, because when we get to this team it makes one wonder:  Has any other team in the history of college basketball ever had a more successful year, against such odds, creating so much opportunity for others, making the game more exciting, and having such lasting impact?

The 1962-63 team with the National Championship trophy.

I suppose you could make a case for the 1966 Texas Western Miners.  Maybe a UCLA team?  There’s a case for the undefeated 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, I suppose.  CCNY won both the NIT and NCAA in 1950…   but they had a point-shaving scandal and dropped out of the University division of college hoops in 1953, so….

No.  There is no other team in the history of college basketball that had a better, more thrilling, more important, or more impactful season– ever.  Period.

*  Winning the National Championship in their first ever NCAA appearance.

*  Setting an NCAA Tournament record for biggest margin of victory, 111-42 (a record that still stands today, 59 years later), in their first ever NCAA Tournament game.

*  The first ever known occurrence when a major college team played five African American players at the same time on the court (Dec. 28, 1962).

* Defeating the two-time defending champions and #1 ranked team in the country after…

* Trailing the two-time defending champions and #1 ranked team in the country by 15 points in the second half, staging a comeback to win at the buzzer in overtime– the record for biggest comeback in the NCAA Final for 59 years (until 2022).

Vic Rouse gets a rebound.

* Overcoming the adversity of racist threats, harassment, taunting, unequal treatment, higher scrutiny, and allegations of academic fraud.

* The starting five playing every minute of the overtime title game.

* Despite racist suggestions that Loyola’s team was composed of paid ringers, every starting player graduated from Loyola; one starter earned a postgraduate law degree; one starter earned a postgraduate MBA; and one starter earned a BA, three Master’s degrees and a Ph.D.

* Helped change the style of the game for decades.  In 1959, the highest scoring team in college basketball averaged 87.6 points per game. Loyola averaged 91.8 in 1963, and by 1966 the highest scoring team (Syracuse) was averaging 99 points a game and eight others higher than Loyola’s 1963 scoring average.

* Playing SEC Champ Mississippi State in a clean, competitive game that almost didn’t happen after the state of Mississippi prohibited MSU from playing a team with African-Americans.

* Integration of college basketball took a huge leap forward after Loyola’s championship. Hundreds of scholarships opened up for qualified African American students, which were subject to quotas or segregation before.  A top example:  In 1963, one of the most demonstrably racist receptions Loyola encountered was at the University of Houston, where they were pelted with coins, spit on, rude signs in the audience, cat calls, etc.  The following year Houston recruited their first Black football player, and two years later African American basketball players Don Cheney and Elvin Hayes propelled Houston into a national basketball power.

Loyola vs. Mississippi State in East Lansing, Mich.

The list of feats and firsts goes on and on, now thankfully chronicled and showcased in full documentaries, several books, official government honors, a meeting with the President in the White House, and enshrinement in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

President Obama with the 1963 Ramblers in the Oval Office.

Yeah, that’s a pretty solid season.

The 25 Best Loyola Men’s Basketball Teams of All Time: Part 4 (#6-#10)

No. 10

The 1984-85 Loyola Ramblers: A Sweet 16 After a 17-Year Wait

27-6, 13-1 Midwestern City (1st Place)

1985 Ramblers

For 50 years—from 1968 to 2018—the 1984-85 Ramblers were the only Loyola team to make it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and they did it with a flourish. A regular season conference title, a conference tournament title, a non-con win over #4 Illinois at Rosemont Horizon (followed by a convincing win over #20 Louisville at Freedom Hall), a 19-game winning streak, a #14 AP ranking, and a Sweet 16 appearance against the #1 team in the country and defending National Champion.

The individual talent on that team was stellar.  Alfredrick Hughes averaged 26.3 ppg and finished his career that season with 2914 career points, at the time the 5th highest scoring player ever in Division I. Even today– 37 years later– Hughes still ranks 13th all time. Hughes was selected 14th overall in the first round of the 1985 NBA Draft.  Guard Andre Battle averaged 20.3 points and was a third round NBA Pick by the Celtics. Sophomore center/forward Andre Moore went on to set the Loyola record for career blocks, and earned a 2nd round pick by Denver in the 1987 NBA Draft.

Loyola beat 13 seed Iona in the first round of the tournament 59-58 in a squeaker; Hughes led Loyola with 24 points and the Gaels’ senior forward Tony Hargraves had 19 points (but missed six of his seven free throw attempts).  Next up, Loyola defeated SMU 70-57, forcing 7’ center Jon Koncak (the 5th pick in the NBA Draft that year) and the rest of the Mustangs into 19 turnovers.

Alfredrick Hughes scored 2914 points and had 982 rebounds.

In the Sweet 16 against Patrick Ewing and Georgetown, the Ramblers were great in the first half, taking a 28-26 lead into the locker room at halftime.  In the second half the Hoyas shut down the Ramblers’ top three players, holding Carl Golston, Battle, and Hughes to a combined 24 points on 38 field goal attempts for the game. 

It was a great showing by the Ramblers.  With Golston and Moore coming back, Wichita State transfer Bernard Jackson set to join the team in 1985-86, and some good recruits (Gerald Heyward, Keith Carter) coming in the future looked bright.  But it would be 30 years until the next postseason tournament for Loyola, and 33 years until their next trip to the NCAA.

Out of the four times Loyola won the Midwestern City/Midwest Collegiate/Horizon League regular season title, this was the only time the Ramblers won the conference tournament for the automatic bid.  Loyola would reach the conference tournament final only one more time during their 28 subsequent years in the conference that became the Horizon League, in 2001-02.

For my generation of Loyola fans, this was the team we looked to as a model of what was possible. And if we had kept doing *this* every five to seven years or so, people might have been fine with it. But recruiting changed, scouting changed, conferences changed, players changed, the economics of college sports changed, but Loyola athletics and administration didn’t change much, at least not until the 21st Century was well underway. When it stops happening every five to seven years and gets into multiple decades without success or satisfaction, it will tend to cull a fanbase.

No. 9

The 1961-62 Loyola Ramblers:  NIT 3rd Place, Much Bigger Things in Store

23-4 Overall

1961-62 Loyola Ramblers

It was no secret that Loyola’s 1962 team was going to be fantastic. The 1960-61 freshman team (featuring Les Hunter, Vic Rouse, John Egan and Ron Miller) absolutely tore apart their opponents without mercy.  That freshman team was 12-1 (the loss by three points to a top AAU squad), averaged 96 points a game, and beat opponents like Roosevelt, Valparaiso’s frosh squad, Lake Forest, and local juco squads by as much as 50-80 points.

The only question was, how will Coach Ireland integrate five star-level African American players from the freshman team (Hunter, Rouse, Miller, Floyd Bosley, Rich Rochelle) onto a returning squad with one star African American player (Jerry Harkness) and a senior African-American bench contributor (Alan Ray).  Ireland chose to start two white players– senior shooting guard Mike Gavin and sophomore point guard Egan– with Miller as the first man off the bench. In order to mostly hew to the “gentleman’s agreement” of only playing a maximum of three Black players at a time, 6’8” sophomore center Floyd Bosley, 6’10” sophomore center Rich Rochelle, and 6’1” senior guard Alan Ray all had their playing time seriously constrained.  That talented trio only saw time in 10 or 11 of the 27 games played that season.

The 1961-62 team was much deeper than the 1963 National Championship team, but not as experienced.  The scheduling for that season didn’t present the Ramblers with a lot of opportunities, either.  The team’s first loss was a drubbing by #1 Ohio State, the two-time defending champions.  The Ramblers lost their 2nd game on the road on Jan. 9 at Marquette, dropping them to 9-2 on the season, but their best win at that point was against unranked Indiana (middle of the pack in the Big Ten) at Chicago Stadium.  After a win over Memphis State and a harrowing trip to Loyola New Orleans in which the team experienced a lot of racial hostility, the team really got into a groove.  The Ramblers won 12 in a row (including wins over St. John’s, Marquette, and #7 Bowling Green State) before a loss in the regular-season finale at Xavier.

Harkness led the ’62 team with 21.0 ppg and Rouse (13.8), Egan (13.7), Hunter (12.8), Gavin (11.9), and Miller (10.2) also averaging in double digits. Rouse was the top rebounder with 11.3 per game, and Hunter and Harkness averaged 8.7 boards apiece.

The NCAA tournament eclipsed the NIT in prestige sometime in the early 1950s.  Although the ’62 Ramblers got invites to both the NCAA and NIT, Ireland chose to take the NIT bid—he said—to give Harness and Miller a chance to play in front of their parents and friends.  Sporting an #10 ranking in the AP Poll, Loyola got a bye into the Quarterfinals where they beat Temple, and set to face off against Dayton.  The Flyers got to the Quarterfinals by beating Wichita State and Houston to notch their ninth win in a row, at 21-6 overall.  Dayton defeated the Ramblers 98-82, and went on to beat St. John’s (a team Loyola beat earlier that season) to win the NIT Championship.  Loyola defeated Duquesne in the third-place game, 95-84, the beginning of a 22-game winning streak.

No. 8

The 2017-18 Ramblers:  Buzzer-Beaters and Sister Jean on the Big Stage

32-6, 15-3 Missouri Valley (1st place)

Such joy… So marvelous!

I know it’s going to hit a lot of people wrong that such a beloved, important and memorable team– with an all-time program high of 32 wins!– ranks eighth on this list.  But remember, this amazing team probably wouldn’t have made the tournament had they lost in the Arch Madness final. 

Loyola’s KenPom rating sat at 45 going into the 2018 MVC Tournament Final, which is high for a bubble team, but would have dropped with a loss to Illinois State. Battling some injuries in December, the team lost by 34 points at Boise State and lost by 17 points at Milwaukee, two bad losses that would have caused the committee to balk. The 2017-18 team also started conference play 1-2 with a low-energy home loss to Indiana State, before winning 21 of their next 22 games en route to the Final Four.

Two newcomers to the roster made an immediate difference and helped make up for the loss of Loyola’s greatest player of the 2010s, Milton Doyle, to graduation.  Six-foot-nine center Cameron Krutwig (the 2018 MVC Freshman of the Year) and Fairleigh Dickenson transfer Marques Townes (11.1 ppg on 51.4% field goal shooting) were both in the starting lineup a few games into the regular season. Second-year players Clayton Custer (MVC Player of the Year) and Aundre Jackson helped propel Loyola to the third highest team field goal percentage in all of Division I.  MVC Defensive Player of the Year Ben Richardson was a mentor for freshman Lucas Williamson, who emerged as a reliable contributor on both ends of the ball.  And Donte Ingram (11.0 ppg and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game) stepped up big when needed, earning the Arch Madness MVP award and hitting the game-winning shot in Loyola’s first NCAA Tournament game in 33 years.

Still amazing.

But it didn’t stop there. Custer hit the game-winning shot to beat Tennessee with seconds left. Townes hit the game-clinching shot against Nevada.  And Richardson stepped up with a career high 23 points against Kansas State to put the Ramblers in the Final Four for the first time in 55 years.  Crazy.  Still unbelievable.  And with 14 minutes left to play in the game that would send the Ramblers to the National Championship game, Loyola had a 10-point lead.  Insane.  Ludicrous.  Magnificent.

The 2017-18 team was a something akin to a moon launch event for Loyola athletics. Happily, the teams that followed over the next several years helped to reinforce that Loyola has a strong commitment to winning athletics.

No. 7

The 1965-66 Loyola Ramblers:  The Best Ramblers Team You Probably Haven’t Heard About

22-3 Overall

The 1965-66 Ramblers were the full fruiting of the next generation of players after the 1963 National Championship, built in a lot of ways similarly to the ’63 team.  The ’66 Ramblers were by Billy Smith, who actually started the 1962-63 season with the Ramblers before flunking out, missing a year to rebuild his grades at a New York area juco, and returning to play for Coach Ireland. Joining Smith were seniors Jim Coleman, and Frank Perez. Two sophomores joined the three seniors in the lineup– another New York area recruit– phenom Corky Bell–and Doug Wardlaw, a 5’11 guard.

Like the ’63 team, the ’66 Ramblers wanted to outscore their opponents and use their quickness and athleticism to play defense.  This team was deeper than the ’63 squad, with several significant contributors off the bench: sophomores Alan Miller, Jim Tillman, Bob Calihan, and Mike Hogan. Senior Ed Manzke also saw some playing time. The only thing that wasn’t like the ’63 team was the size.  Billy Smith and Jim Tillman were 6’5”; Corky Bell and Frank Perez were 6’4”, and those were the only players over 6’2”.

Corky Bell posts up against Kareem in 1967.

The ’63 team led the nation in with 91.8 points per game. To illustrate how much the game changed after that Loyola championship three years before, the 1965-66 team scored 97.5 points per game and finished fourth in the nation in scoring, after Syracuse, Houston, and Oklahoma City.  Loyola led the nation in margin of victory, defeating their opponents by an average of 20.92 points.

After beating two non-University Division (D-1) teams by a combined 111 points to start the season, the Ramblers dropped a home game to Oklahoma City, a team that would make the tournament and was coming off a Sweet 16 in the 1965 NCAA Tournament.  The 106-89 home loss to an Independent Oklahoma City team must have lit a fire under the Ramblers. After the loss to OKC, the Ramblers began a 14-game winning streak, winning road games at Missouri, Saint Louis, Indiana, and Marquette; in between, they beat Tulsa, #9 Minnesota, and Marshall at home.  In the last three games of that impressive streak, the Ramblers defeated three teams in succession coached by Hall of Fame coaches John Wooden (#10 UCLA), Tex Winter (Kansas State), and Al McGuire (Marquette). As a result, the Ramblers shot up to #3 in the AP Poll.

At 16-1 and ranked #3, the Ramblers stumbled again, losing at Wichita State 92-84. Loyola won out in the last six games of the regular season—including avenging the Wichita State loss with a 94-76 win at Chicago Stadium and beating Sweet 16 team Dayton on the road—to finish the regular season at 22-2.  Loyola drew the #10 ranked Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the first round; WKU was a top 10 defensive team that ended up turning the tables on the Ramblers with a 105-86 upset in the first round.

Texas Western won the National Championship in 1966 by facing off against Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Tournament Final, a matchup of an all white team versus five African-American starters depicted in the film “Glory Road.”  It’s worth noting for Loyola fans and all college basketball fans that Texas Western’s championship happened the same year that Loyola’s next generation of players (after their historic 1963 championship) came of age.

No. 6

The 1963-64 Loyola Ramblers:  Preseason #1, Sweet 16, Regional Third Place, and Still… Disappointed?

22-6 Overall

There are only 23 college basketball programs that have ever had one of their teams ranked #1 in the AP Preseason men’s basketball poll in its 74-year history. In the preseason, the usual suspects—top P5 teams– are typically on top.

But in 1963-64, the AP Preseason poll (and the next three weeks of early polls) had Loyola as the #1 team in the nation. Loyola is the only school in Illinois to achieve a #1 pre-season AP men’s basketball ranking—not Illinois, not DePaul, not Bradley. Not even Marquette, Purdue, or Notre Dame.

The particular team in question was the reigning National Champions, the 1963-64 Loyola Ramblers, who were returning four of their five starting players, and had added some quality newcomers and returnees. The newcomers were starter Jim Coleman, a 5’11” sophomore guard; Ed Manzke, another 5’11” sophomore guard; Frank Perez, a sophomore forward at 6’4”; and Tom Markey, a 6’5” sophomore forward. Chuck Wood, a 6’3” senior forward who was a starter on the ’61 freshman team, finally got some limited playing time late in most games.

On the ’64 Ramblers, Ron Miller was the one to step up to try and replace the leadership and clutch scoring of Jerry Harkness. John Egan stepped up his scoring as well, switching to more of a shooting guard offensive stance, and newcomer Coleman did more ball distribution than scoring. Miller went from scoring 13.3 points per game on the ’63 team to leading all scorers in ’64 with 21.9 per game.

The ’64 Ramblers started out 6-0, with wins over Kent State, Detroit, and Western Michigan. But unlike past years, the margin of victory on those games against good/average Midwestern teams wasn’t as impressive. Loyola needed overtime to beat Detroit at Chicago Stadium, and the #1 team in the country beat Western Michigan on the road by three points (105-102). After a loss to Georgetown in a defensive battle (58-69) at the Quaker City Tourney in Philadelphia, the Ramblers struggled to defeat Northwestern (88-82) and Temple (74-65).

On New Year’s Eve, Loyola beat Indiana at Chicago Stadium, 105-92, to seemingly get back on track. But that was just it—Loyola was a top three team at home (or at least in Chicago venues), but only a pretty good team on the road. Loyola was 14-1 in home games (the only loss to Wichita State 80-76 at Chicago Stadium), but only 6-4 away from Chicago in the regular season.

At 20-5 and ranked #9 by the AP, Loyola knocked off Ohio Valley champions Murray State 101-91 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Welch-Ryan Arena in Evanston. Super sophomore Jim Coleman led the Ramblers in scoring with 27 points in that game. But in the next game against Michigan, the Rambler newcomer got called for a controversial travel.

During Loyola’s 2018 Final Four run, when Loyola was poised to play against Michigan again, a story was pitched on the Ramblermania message board about the controversy, and USA Today responded with an article.

The rough, somewhat controversial 84-80 loss to Michigan was balanced out by a regional third-place win over Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky squad, 100-91. In 1958, Loyola beat Kentucky at Chicago Stadium a few weeks before they won the National Championship. So the 2-game winning streak over Kentucky still stands.

There might not be another college basketball fan base that has experienced such extreme highs and lows as Loyola. Few teams have done anything close to what this 1964 Loyola team did, and yet it feels like a disappointment. No top program in the country has seen anything like the worst years of the program from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. But Loyola fans seem to sense in their bones that the DNA of the program is more like the top programs mentioned in National discussions than the ones left out.

The next five teams show the program’s rich history, coming in five different decades and spanning 92 years.