When Loyola men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser took over the program in 2011, Loyola had three winning seasons since making the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament in 1985.
Now, after 33 years, the Ramblers are headed back to the big dance.
Loyola (28-5, 15-3) secured an NCAA tournament berth with a 65-49 win over Illinois State University March 4. The Ramblers will be a No. 11 seed in the tournament and will take on No. 6 seed University of Miami (Fla.) March 15 in Dallas.
“I’ve said the words ‘God has a plan’ about a million times in the last 10 years,” Moser said after the victory. “I’m blessed to coach this group … it’s a special group.”
Only senior forward Donte Ingram and senior guard Ben Richardson have been with the program for four years. The duo has accumulated 85 wins over that time — the third-highest total in program history.
After the win over Illinois State, Richardson said advancing to the NCAA tournament was the goal from the beginning of the season. “This is what we’ve been dreaming about,” Richardson said.
“This is what we’ve been talking about. We knew we had a lot of potential [and] a lot of pieces this year … we have such a special group of guys. We’re so close. I wouldn’t want to share this with anybody else.”
On Selection Sunday, Ingram said the team had made it a goal to get the automatic bid to the tournament rather than try for an at-large bid.
Ingram said, while the players hadn’t been able to study Miami because of the uncertainty of the bracket, they were prepared to scout the Hurricanes as best they could before the first-round game.
“We had it in the back of our minds that we didn’t want to leave it up to the committee,” Ingram said. “We wanted to take care of our own business. We have this opportunity, we’re excited, we’re about to dig in … and we’re looking forward to Miami.”
Moser credits the rebuild’s success to his time as an assistant coach with the late Rick Majerus — one of the greatest college basketball coaches in history — at Saint Louis University from 2007-11. While there, Moser learned how he should go about building a program from the bottom up.
“That means a lot to me to do this the right way, and that’s what [Majerus] would say to me,” Moser said. “I’ve thought about him a lot while [I’ve been] here.”
Redshirt junior guard Marques Townes transferred to Loyola last season after making the NCAA tournament with Fairleigh Dickinson University, and he was named to the Arch Madness All-Tournament Team this year.
Townes said the program took him in as though he’d been there since the beginning, specifically citing an instance when Moser thought he was a part of the team before he committed. Townes’ voice broke in the postgame press conference as he thanked his teammates for getting him back to the big dance.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” Townes said. “We worked so hard in the summertime. We pushed everything together and I just love these guys so much.”
Redshirt senior center Carson Shanks played in the NCAA Tournament as a redshirt junior at the University of North Dakota last season. He said he’s going to use the experience to help Loyola stay focused during the days leading up to March 15.
“I want to help out these guys [in] any way I can,” Shanks said. “Luckily, I had experience last year playing against [University of] Arizona. It’s a stage like none other in college sports and I just want to help these guys stay loose [and] play the way we have all year.”
This marks Loyola’s sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament, and its first since losing to Georgetown University in the 1985 Sweet 16. The Ramblers are 9-4 overall in the big dance and to this day, Loyola’s 1963 national championship is the only NCAA national title from an Illinois school. The 1963 team played in the “Game of Change,” in which the Ramblers — a team with four African American starters — took on the predominantly-white Mississippi State University in the second round. Loyola won the game 61-51 and, eventually, won the tournament.
Last season, Chicago sports fans rallied around Northwestern University after the Wildcats made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Now, the city is doing the same for Loyola, as other media outlets have been reporting on the team more this season than in the past. Ingram, who graduated from Simeon Academy in Chicago, said an NCAA tournament berth means just as much for the city as it does for the school.
“Obviously, now we’re having the success, and it means a lot for the city of Chicago,” Ingram said. “We just want to keep that going. I’m just proud that [these] last four years, I’ve been a part of something that came up, and I’ve been here with Ben [Richardson] and Coach [Moser] for four years. You dream of times like this. It’s been a goal of ours for a long time, and to make it come true just feels unreal.”
No. 11 Loyola and No. 6 Miami are scheduled to square off at the American Airlines Center in Dallas March 15 at 2:10 p.m. to open March Madness. The game will be broadcast on TruTV.