The Loyola men’s basketball team (32-5, 15-3) is headed to its first NCAA Tournament Final Four since winning the 1963 national championship. The journey to San Antonio wasn’t easy — it was a long, bumpy road.
“One thing I learned from Rick Majerus [at Saint Louis University] … is it’s long-term, not short-term,” Porter Moser said when he was introduced as Loyola’s head coach in 2011. “Develop the program, don’t develop a team. That is so important to what my vision is at Loyola. It’s so important that it’s going to take some time.”
Time, it did take — seven seasons to be exact.
In Moser’s first season at Loyola, the Ramblers finished 7-23 overall and 1-17 in the Horizon League. Two seasons later in 2013, the school made the move to the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), which Moser was familiar with from his days as a player at Creighton University from 1985-89. Despite his familiarity with the conference, the switch set his rebuild back a year. The Ramblers went 10-22 overall and 4-14 in conference play during the 2013-14 season.
In 2014-15, things started looking up. The team went 24-13 overall and, despite an 8-10 MVC record, was invited to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI), a tournament Moser coached in 2010 at SLU. The Ramblers won the CBI, which gave then-first-years Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson postseason experience, which would be essential years later as they’re the only four-year players on Loyola’s Final Four roster in 2017-18.
But, Loyola underperformed the next year. The team went 15-17 overall and 7-11 in MVC play after picking up a first-place vote in the MVC preseason poll. In 2016-17, Loyola went 18-10 overall and 8-10 in MVC play to finish fifth in the MVC. At the time, that was the program’s best finish in MVC standings.
This season, Loyola won the MVC regular season, won Arch Madness, set a new program record with 32 wins and is advancing to the Final Four. It’s a journey Moser said wouldn’t have been possible without Majerus’ influence.
“I think Coach Majerus would love this team,” Moser said after the team returned from the Elite Eight March 26. “That’s what he’d say to me. He’d say ‘I love your team, how hard they play, they play the right way, they’re fundamental and they play together … you’re a fun team to watch.’”
Assistant coach Matt Gordon has been by Moser’s side for most of the time since Moser was head coach at Illinois State University from 2003-07. Gordon was a manager at Illinois State from 2003-06 and SLU’s director of basketball operations from 2008-11 and followed Moser to Loyola.
“[Moser]’s been kicked in the dirt and to show the resiliency he has, it’s a credit to anybody not only in the [coaching] profession but, really, in life,” Gordon said. “You’re going to get knocked down once in a while, but to get knocked down and come back to this? I’m just very, very lucky to work for him and somebody like him because there’s not many people like him.”
Gordon said he’s seen former players hang out with the team throughout March Madness. He said without them, the program wouldn’t be in its current position.
“When you constantly add pieces year in and year out and you get so many kids that won state championships, these guys … don’t know any better except winning,” Gordon said. “You could go through listing the guys [on the roster] who won state championships. That’s what they’re about, they’re about winning. When you get enough people like that, they’re not scared of anybody.”
After shattering expectations and brackets all over the country, Moser said his team remains focused on the game at hand.
“The thing that we’re going to try to do is our routine of practice, film, preparation [and] travel,” Moser said. “Everything, we’re going to try to do as normal as we can.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on No. 3 seed University of Michigan in the NCAA Tournament semifinal March 31 in San Antonio at 5:09 p.m. CDT. The game will be broadcast on TBS.