When Loyola head coach Porter Moser signed a pair of transfers in back-to-back seasons, he said he knew he was getting a pair of winners. These winners, to Moser’s surprise, would be the players who would help turn around his entire program, lifting Loyola onto college basketball’s biggest stage last season.
These transfers, redshirt senior guards Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, have been vital to the program’s turnaround since their respective arrivals in 2015 and 2016. Alongside a pair of unforgettable last second shots that Rambler fans won’t soon forget, the duo has secured back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year awards and helped raise the program to relevance over a few magical weeks in March 2018.
“They’re both program-changing young men,” Moser said. “With those two, it’s just so much more than the buy-in [they show]. Every day, their effort and their mentality they share paired with the fact that they’re really good players for us, they’ll be in the Mount Rushmore of Loyola basketball.”
All of their impacts aside, neither Townes nor Custer wanted to be a Rambler during their original recruitment. Showing up in 2015, Custer was a transfer from Iowa State University after playing sparingly in his first season in Ames, Iowa. After the season, he followed his former coach Fred Hoiberg to Chicago, but instead of the United Center, Custer settled for Gentile Arena to play alongside his high school teammate and best friend Ben Richardson.
“Obviously Ben was a huge part of it,” Custer said. “Even though [the program] wasn’t basketball-wise what I wanted it to be when I got here, I could tell that coach had this place going in the right direction with high character players and it was only a matter of time before we pushed it to that next level basketball wise.”
Similar to Custer, Townes didn’t have the Ramblers on his radar when it came time to decide where to play college basketball. After considering both basketball and football at the collegiate level, the three-star recruit signed with Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2014.
After a two year stint with the Knights which included an NCAA Tournament appearance, Townes re-opened his recruitment and drew the eyes of Porter Moser and the Ramblers — signing with them shortly after his visit.
“When we signed them, we said Marques Townes won three high school championships and Clayton Custer won two high school championships,” Moser said. “We thought these guys were winners and that was the thing I was saying when we recruited them.”
Due to the requirement to sit one season after transferring, it would be two full seasons before the duo could take the court with one another. Despite this wait, they would pair up to lead Loyola’s backcourt in the 2017-18 season.
This new partnership, alongside a cache of other veterans, would propel the Ramblers to their first Final Four appearance since 1963. In back-to-back games, the pair would shock millions with Custer sinking a go-ahead jumper against University of Tennessee and Townes sealing the upset over University of Nevada with a last-second three-pointer.
Along with this unparalleled team success during the 2017-18 season, the duo would see individual accolades as Custer took home the MVC Larry Bird Player of the Year Award. Townes, after being snubbed from all-conference awards, would secure both MVC all-tournament and NCAA Tournament South Region first team honors.
This season, the pair attempted to step up to replace the losses of Richardson, Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson to graduation, with Townes taking a major step forward in his final season in Rogers Park. With averages of 15.6 points and 3.4 assists per game, the New Jersey native became the second Rambler in a row to take home Player of the Year honors in the MVC. Marking the first time two different players from the same program won the award since 1990-91.
“After the season last year, the coaching staff pulled me aside and said, ‘We know you got robbed,” Townes said. “I wasn’t even on an [All-MVC] team last year. I took that personally. I’m just glad people are finally noticing now. I had that in the back of my mind the whole year. I just wanted to prove myself.”
The high note the Ramblers finished their regular season on would be short-lived however, as their dream of a repeat act in the NCAA Tournament ended March 10. A last-second loss to Bradley University left the No. 1-seeded Ramblers shocked, as the Braves eventually went on to win the MVC Tournament.
Despite this disappointment of not returning to the NCAA Tournament and the potential labeling of the Ramblers as “one-hit wonders,” the pair of redshirt seniors know what their presence has meant to this program and that their legacy is sealed, which was best described by Townes after winning MVC Player of the Year March 5.
“I think that we’ll be Loyola legends for sure,” Townes said. “To have that cemented in Loyola history, we’ll be remembered for a lifetime that’s for sure.”