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Loyola-Chicago Is Keeping Its March Magic at a Safe Distance as New Season Begins

After a whirlwind offseason, Loyola-Chicago has learned the best way to make another deep tournament run is to wipe the slate clean in November.

CHICAGO — Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt’s routine got disrupted in the NCAA Tournament. The Loyola-Chicago chaplain-turned-hoops-megastar usually prays with the Ramblers pre-game, dishing out the scouting report between requests for God to watch over the boys and their coaches. Then she goes to midcourt at Gentile Arena and leads the crowd in a prayer. As the Ramblers danced their way to the Final Four in March, Sister Jean had to cut the scouting report out of that team prayer. Too many cameras. Too many prying ears. And because the Ramblers weren’t at home, she didn’t get to address the crowd.

On this late October night, the 99-year-young nun is back in her element. She’s already prayed with the team. Now she’s in her wheelchair at midcourt with a maroon and gold scarf draped over her shoulders, custom Nikes on her feet and a mic in her hand. 

Every head bows.

“Good and gracious God, tonight we welcome the Warriors of Winona State University.”

She won’t spill any scouting tips to the crowd. That’s just for the players.

“Oh God, keep each team from injuries tonight. Help each team put into practice what their coaches have taught them. And God, we also ask that you help the referees call the errors in equal fashion…”

The officials don’t seem to notice this part, but perhaps the big ref in the sky does. They’ll call 13 fouls on Winona State and 11 on the Ramblers.

“And lastly, oh God, at the end of the game, may the score indicate a big W for the Ramblers. Amen.”

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And with that, everything gets back to normal. Or as close to normal as a team can get after it captures the nation’s imagination and reaches a point no one dreamed possible. Ramblers coach Porter Moser is freaking out about floor spacing, and he seems especially anguished each time freshman center Franklin Agunanne is on the floor. Agunanne, a 6'9", 225-pounder from St. Louis by way of an Indiana prep school, is the type of athlete who—had he been on the roster last year—would have ensured the Ramblers didn’t go dunkless through five NCAA Tournament games. He likely will become a valuable contributor as a backup to sophomore Cameron Krutwig sooner rather than later, but as he gets minutes late in his first college exhibition, Agunanne is struggling to process the dozens of Moser sayings that make up the Ramblers’ on-court lexicon. 

A day earlier, Moser admits a fear. “I’ve got to remember our team last November—not in March,” he says. “Because I get frustrated now.” By the time the Ramblers reached the tournament last season, the players probably could have coached themselves to at least a win or two. That’s how thoroughly they had internalized Moser’s philosophy of spreading the floor, sharing the ball and getting the hell back on defense. By that point, he didn’t have to say “Six arms, six eyes” when the Ramblers missed a shot to remind his team that at least three players needed to get back and get in formation to stuff any fast break coming the opposite direction.

He has to say it now, and he has to keep reminding himself this team is not that team. Moser watched the Ramblers’ 2017 game against Missouri-Kansas City—the team Loyola-Chicago will open the new season against Tuesday night at Gentile Arena—and he was stunned. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” he says. “If you’d have told me that was a Final Four team…”

But it wasn’t a Final Four team. Not yet at least. “Right now last year, we were in the same boat,” says senior guard Marques Townes, who hit the game-sealing three-pointer against Nevada in the Sweet 16. “We were still learning. We didn’t know we were going to the Final Four in October. But each practice and each game last year, we got better. That’s what we’ve got to focus on this year.” That’s why Moser points to the trophies on the back wall of his office. There’s are 2018 Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament trophies. There’s the NCAA South Region trophy with a net from Atlanta hanging from it. “None of these trophies say 2019 on them,” Moser keeps repeating to anyone who will listen. 

Playing for Moser requires learning a second language. Perhaps that language should be called Majerus, because Moser borrowed a lot of it from former boss Rick Majerus after working for him at Saint Louis, and Moser’s time with Majerus helped plant seeds for most of the rest. “Six arms, six eyes,” for example, comes from a time when Majerus and his staff were scouting for an upcoming game against Dayton and realized the only way to keep the Flyers from scoring 30 fast break points on them was to stop sending three players to the offensive glass and start sending three back on defense. That plan stymied Dayton, and Moser locked it away for later. When the Ramblers move into their new locker room soon, they’ll have a new “Wall of Culture” with all the key phrases (e.g. “Fake a pass to make a pass, Close out with high hands, When the ball moves, you move). But it takes time to learn how to talk like a Rambler. That’s one reason why one of Moser’s mottos is “stay old.” Another reason? “At our level, if we stay young, it’s hard,” he says. “Because our young isn’t a lottery pick.”

For a team that lost two starters (guard Ben Richardson and wing Donte Ingram) and a key role player (wing Aundre Jackson), the Ramblers have remained practically ancient. They return leading scorers Clayton Custer and Townes as well as starting center Krutwig. Aher Uguak, a 6'7", 225-pounder who will play a similar role to Ingram, is in his third year of college after sitting out last season following a transfer from New Mexico. Lucas Williamson, who has the inside track on the fifth starting spot, was the Ramblers’ energy guy off the bench as a freshman last season.

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This is why Moser doesn’t want to change too much. It freaked him out when, after a speaking engagement, someone asked him how Custer and Townes were adjusting to their new roles. He immediately took the fifth-year seniors—and Loyola-Chicago graduates—to lunch to make sure they knew they didn’t have to play new roles this season. They just needed to be great at the roles they already played. Custer and Townes already knew that, but they appreciated the gesture. 

As two of the most visible faces from the Final Four run, Townes and Custer are accustomed to comments from those who don’t understand the best way to go deep in the tournament again is to scrub the slate clean. “It’s still the main thing that anybody who comes up to us wants to talk about,” says Custer, who hit the game winner against Tennessee in the round of 32. “The challenge for us is to obviously be nice to everyone we talk to about that, but once we get to practice, move on and realize that we still have things we’ve got to go through to get better this year.”

Last month, Moser showed his players video of Kobe Bryant’s visit to the Alabama football team’s preseason camp. 

Afterward, Moser asked the players what they noticed. They all talked about things Bryant said. Moser, meanwhile, couldn’t stop watching Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won six national titles—including five in the past nine seasons. “Here’s a program that just won the national championship, and coach Saban looks obsessed with getting better,” Moser says. “That resonated with me so much. Because we didn’t win it. We’re still chasing. They did win it, and he’s obsessed with getting better.”

This past offseason, Moser soaked up as much advice as he could. He asked Celtics coach Brad Stevens how Stevens got his Butler players back to earth after they reached the national title game in 2010. He talked to coaches who had terrible years after surprisingly deep tournament runs, and they warned him of some of the pitfalls. “You talk to coaches who had a breakout year and followed it with a bad year,” Moser says. “They say, ‘Man, we just wanted to skip to March.’”

Some of the most poignant advice Moser got came from Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team won its second national title in three years last season. After Wright made his first Final Four in 2009, he listened to all the people who pointed out that he could start attracting mega-star recruits. And he signed some higher rated players, but the on-court product suffered because he had gotten away from the program’s identity. When Wright reverted to his old recruiting profile, the Wildcats took off again. Moser has tried to remember that as the Final Four run has opened more doors on the recruiting trail. He still needs to seek the same kind of player—a captain of a high school state champ or a transfer who was miscast at his first school and needed a change of scenery. “They were our kind of guys—skilled, tough winners,” Moser says. “I think we should stick with that formula.”

In another part of the building, Steve Watson is intent on changing the formula. Watson, the Ramblers’ athletic director, wants to squeeze as much positive impact out of the Final Four run as possible. At Loyola-Chicago board meeting in September, Watson laid out his plan to keep building off a run that put more eyes on the school than million-dollar ad buys ever could. “We were talking about the momentum and how we keep it going,” Watson says.

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And that momentum isn’t just flowing through the athletic department. By the time the Ramblers busted everyone’s bracket, the school had already sent out acceptance notices to the potential members of the incoming freshman class. The number of acceptances was calculated based on what percentage of students choose Loyola-Chicago once accepted. It did not account for the school’s most famous nun appearing on Good Morning America and the bump in cool factor that would provide. The result? Loyola-Chicago welcomed its largest freshman class in history this fall. Forget the Flutie Effect. This was the Sister Jean Swell.

Inside athletics, coaches of other sports are finding their calls getting returned more often by recruits. They have to explain less about what the school is and where it is. The Final Four run brought images of the gorgeous Rogers Park campus on the shore of Lake Michigan into living rooms across the country.

Meanwhile, the town rallied around the Ramblers. The Bears and Bulls were down. The Cubs and White Sox were just starting their seasons. Suddenly, more local businesses wanted to do business with the department. Watson is trying to turn that into more money, because this small Jesuit school in Chicago wouldn’t mind doing what a small Jesuit school in Spokane did after its basketball program had some NCAA Tournament success. One reason for Gonzaga’s rise is because the Bulldogs started treating their players like players were treated in much wealthier conferences. That allowed Gonzaga to compete for some of the same players as the bluebloods. That means traveling in style. Late in the season in 2016, Watson told Moser the Ramblers would need to bus six hours each way for a game at Southern Illinois because there wasn’t money for a charter flight. “We won’t do that anymore,” Watson says. “We’re going to find a way.”

The Ramblers found a way to the Final Four last season in part because they changed their goals. In each of his first six seasons, Moser met with each player before practice began and reviewed the individual goals that each player wanted to meet. Last year, Moser met with each player and discussed the standard that player was expected to meet.

The result? A new standard for the program.

If the Ramblers hope to meet that standard again, they’ll have to start from scratch.