The adrenaline still has not worn off from one of college basketball’s best rebounds.
Loyola-Chicago blitzed all the way to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four in 2018 after enduring a half-century on the periphery of the college basketball landscape.
Now, 15 months after their great achievement, the Ramblers are plotting a way back to the pinnacle of the sport, and their trajectory will take them through the Cayman Islands.
Loyola-Chicago is one of eight entrants in November’s Cayman Islands Classic, and coach Porter Moser is excited for the early-season opportunity to match up against quality opponents.
“For us, playing in a really high-level [multi-team event] is a big thing,” said Moser via telephone on Tuesday. “That’s huge for us. To get these kind of games and this kind of competition really prepares you for your league. You’re going to see a handful of these teams in the NCAA tournament.”
Loyola-Chicago was a power in the 1960s, winning the national championship in 1963 and qualifying for March Madness four times in a six-year span. But then, from 1969 to 2017, the Ramblers made the NCAA Tournament just one time, an isolated jaunt to the Sweet Sixteen in 1985.
When Moser arrived, Loyola-Chicago was languishing in the Horizon League and had nourished one 20-win season over a 25-year span. Moser went 7-23 his first year and 15-16 in the second, and he endured a third-straight losing year when the team jumped to the Missouri Valley Conference in 2014.
A potential turning point came in the 2014-15 season, when Loyola-Chicago earned a 24-13 record and then managed to win the postseason College Basketball Invitational tournament. But Loyola-Chicago missed the postseason twice in a row before making its transformational run in 2018.
“When I got here, I could have gone to midcourt at the first TV timeout and teed up my driver and it would’ve ricocheted around the stands without hitting anybody,” he said.
“You have to establish a winning culture. We doubled our wins from our first season to the second, and then making that jump to the Valley was another big step. … Chicago has embraced us 100 percent, and there’s a lot of excitement and pride about our program now.”
And that radiates far beyond their regional base.
Loyola-Chicago became a national story with their journey to the Final Four, and team chaplain Sister Jean became a celebrity of the highest order. The chaplain, whose given name is Jean Dolores Schmidt, will turn 100 in August, and Moser is uncertain about whether she will come to Cayman.
The roll continued last season, when Loyola-Chicago won its conference in the regular season and advanced to the postseason National Invitation Tournament.
Now, with the Ramblers posting winning seasons in four of their last five campaigns, Moser finds himself rebuilding his team. The team has graduated many of its stalwarts from the Final Four team, but it returns a pair of seasoned contributors in Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig.
Williamson missed 18 games last year with a broken hand, while Krutwig established himself as a force.
“He’s like [NBA star Nikola] Jokic,” Moser said. “He’s an elite passer, he’s old school and there’s a flair and excitement about his game. He very well might be the Preseason Player of the Year in the Valley.”
Early-season tournaments have become a staple for Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers played in the Fort Myers Tipoff last year and the Savannah Invitational the year before. One year before that, Loyola-Chicago competed in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, a tournament roughly similar to the Cayman Islands Classic.
The players, Moser said, will have time for fun and time to get down to business.
“We’re going to hit Chicago weather in January and February,” he said. “I won’t be on the beach on game day, but I want them to experience different cultures. I want them to experience what the Cayman Islands have to offer. For some of these guys, it will be hard to go back there another time.”
Whoever they play – and however far they make it through the bracket – Moser is determined to make it a positive experience. He said his players will have plenty of time to bond on campus between now and November, but the trip to Cayman can help them lock in early at a high level of performance.
“We’re going to play three really good games. That really excites me and scares me, but at least we’ve got an opportunity,” Moser said. “If anybody watched us at the Final Four, we were enjoying the journey. I want them to enjoy it, but when it’s time to practice, we’re going to be completely locked in.”