As the Loyola Ramblers prepare for one of the most unlikely Final Four trips in the history of college basketball, the 16 players listed on the roster don’t really have the luxury of thinking about legacy.
They’ll take on Michigan, the Big Ten conference tournament champions, and John Beilein’s system will undoubtedly test the defensive principles that have led Loyola to four unlikely victories and a place in history. However, if you think for a second that the university and, to a lesser extent, Porter Moser aren’t thinking about what comes next, you’re a step behind.
This Loyola squad has already accomplished something we’ll never forget for the sheer unlikelihood. An 11-seed, which wouldn’t have gotten an invite if not for a conference tournament title, knocked off powers from the ACC, SEC and Big 12, and beat an extremely talented Nevada team from the Mountain West on their way to the Final Four.
That guarantees that they’re a permanent reference point in the archive of this great tournament. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a blip in history if you’re Loyola.
Keeping expectations realistic and constantly moving towards the next achievable goal is one of the most critical elements to running an athletic department in this age. So we’re not asking for Loyola to be regular fixtures in the tournament’s final weekend. However, there is a void in Chicago that they’re positioned well to step up and fill.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere with a richer basketball history than Chicago. It’s one of the most talent-laden cities in the country and is responsible for producing some of the greatest players to ever play the game.
That would seemingly supply Division I programs within the state with a recruiting base that should make them among the most competitive programs in the country on a regular basis. Historically, that hasn’t been the case.
Loyola managed a national championship in 1963, but it’s the only NCAA Tournament title in men’s basketball in state history. Programs like DePaul, Illinois and SIU have all had extended periods of moderate success since then, with Illinois and DePaul drawing a significant portion of their talent from within the city and in other parts of the state.
Unfortunately, all the talent the area has produced hasn’t always resulted in success for state institutions at the next level. Chicago has been a national recruiting hotbed, and its central location and ease of access make it rife for pillaging by the nation’s blue-blood programs.
It’s not entirely unique to Chicago, but there are a number of mitigating factors that make it a bigger problem here than in most places. It’s socioeconomic, political and outright complicated for a number of reasons, but I did explore it in detail for The Open Man earlier this year.
Of course, all of that goes to say that a basketball-hungry city hasn’t had very much good college basketball to be excited about. But the circumstances are right for Loyola to at least temporarily address that.
The Ramblers joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 2012 after 34 seasons in the Horizon League. The MVC isn’t the same type of challenge it was a decade ago when it put multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament every season from 1999-2007.
However, it is a step up in competition from the Horizon league and puts them in a better position to challenge for NCAA Tournament bids.
At the same time, it’s not a league that requires enormous resources to compete in. They don’t have to try to compete with major national powers, either on the recruiting trail or in terms of facilities, to be successful.
If the goal is to continue to hold Chicago’s attention, the measure for success is consistent participation in the tournament with the occasional possibility of snatching a victory or two every now and then.
Theoretically, there’s even room for Loyola to experience that level of success and for a bigger institution to also be nationally relevant, but the fact that there isn’t another program in that position does help.
DePaul has been consistently spinning its wheels since the Ray and Joey Meyer eras ended, and the school hasn’t experienced postseason play of any kind in a decade. Meanwhile, other programs around the area like UIC, Northwestern, Chicago State and Northern Illinois have never had any success close to that.
Illinois can certainly hold part of Chicago’s attention when they’re competitive, but usually they’re not a program that the whole city can rally behind because several other Big Ten schools have massive alumni bases within the city.
Loyola’s success isn’t nearly as threatening if you’re a Wisconsin or Iowa graduate as Illinois would be. So if you’ve fallen in love with this city and you’re looking for a feel-good sports story, it’s easy to get behind the Ramblers without jeopardizing your Indiana fandom (for example) and that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now.
Having an adorable 98-year-old nun become the face of the university certainly doesn’t hurt either.
However, if Loyola is going to capitalize on this and not slip into our distant memories, there are a couple of things they have to focus on moving forward. For starters, they have to find a way to hang on to Porter Moser for at least another year or two to continue to build out the culture they’ve created this year.
Moser, 49, already has 14 years of collegiate head coaching experience under his belt, which would seem to work in Loyola’s favor. He’s not a young, up-and-coming coach certain to use the job as a stepping stone.
Unfortunately, a Final Four takes an otherwise average resume — his 24-win season in 2014-15 is the only other 20-win season of his career — and elevates it to the level of attracting larger mid-major interest and possibly even looks for a rebuild within a major conference in a down coaching market.
Loyola athletic director Steve Watson has already mentioned ripping up Moser’s old deal and getting him a raise. But the Ramblers certainly won’t be able to compete financially with any seriously interested party with a larger athletic department budget.
They’ll simply have to hope that the loyalty they showed Moser by allowing him to return for a sixth season after an 89-105 record in his first five years leading the program will be returned. Between that reciprocity and the administration making it clear that they’re committed to sustained success moving forward, they should have a good shot at bringing the former Benet Academy star back next year.
From there, it’s about continuing to build recruiting relationships and using this enormous success to open new doors.
Donte Ingram wasn’t a highly-recruited star coming out of Chicago’s esteemed Simeon Academy, but his success at Loyola could help open doors for Moser and Loyola in the Chicago Public League. While navigating the politics involved with recruiting the CPL can be daunting, the talent the city’s public schools produce is undeniable.
Loyola isn’t going to beat out Duke or Kentucky for a 5-star prospect from Whitney Young or Simeon. But if they can routinely find good players like Ingram or Lucas Williamson (a freshman out of Whitney Young), they absolutely can continue to compete for Missouri Valley titles and NCAA Tournament bids. The more frequently they give players like Ingram a platform like this, the better players they can recruit within the city.
We know Loyola is going to be able to hold their own at city and suburban Catholic institutions because of their religious and academic profile. But selectively recruiting the public league effectively will only help cultivate their image as Chicago’s team and ultimately make them more talented.
If they can do these things and then supplement their roster the way all good mid-majors do — by extending their recruiting efforts regionally and investing in overseas scouting — then there is no reason to believe they couldn’t be frequent participants in the tournament.
Sure, it’d be as foolish to expect them to replicate this regularly as it would have been to expect it of the championship team in 1963. However, Chicago wants badly to have a college program that it can be proud of, and the number of bandwagoners (and the corresponding bar crowds) this March prove it.
There’s absolutely no reason that it can’t be Loyola.
And if Loyola hasn’t seen that by now, they never will.