“Nobody expected me to be here at 30,” Loyola head coach Drew Valentine said after leading his team to an MVC Championship in his first year at the helm. “I did, sorry.”
As Valentine stepped off the court for the last time in the 2021-22 season, he wasn’t just leaving behind a season cut short by a first round March Madness loss. He was finishing as Loyola’s only men’s basketball coach to make it to the NCAA Tournament in their first year and the winningest first-year men’s basketball coach in program history.
Valentine’s squad finished the 2021-22 season with a record of 25-8 overall and 13-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). This record makes him the coach with the most wins in his first year in Loyola program history.
He’s also been a part of other big seasons for the Ramblers, including five straight 20-win seasons — every year since he’s been on the coaching staff. His first season, the 2017-18 season, saw the Ramblers record a school record 32 wins on their way to the 2018 Final Four.
Losses to Valley Teams: 4
Loyola fell to four different MVC teams this season — Bradley University Feb. 9, Missouri State University Jan. 22, University of Northern Iowa Feb. 25 and Drake University Jan. 30 and Feb. 19. The Ramblers were also able to win over every single MVC team at least once this season, with the win over the Drake Bulldogs coming in the MVC Championship match.
With the exception of the Bradley Braves, each of the other three teams finished either No. 1 in the conference in the regular season — Northern Iowa — or tied with Loyola in a three way tie for second place, making suitable opponents for the Ramblers.
MVC Championships: 1
Valentine is no stranger to a championship matchup with Drake — he helped coach the Ramblers to a championship victory over the Bulldogs in the 2021 MVC Tournament. This marks the third total and second consecutive MVC Championship he’s played a part in.
In the 2022 MVC Tournament, the Ramblers played with a defense of steel — one that Valentine himself had helped perfect as the team’s former de facto defensive coordinator, one that finished the 2020-21 season as No. 1 in the nation.
Although the championship match between Loyola and Drake was a tight contest between two hard-fighting opponents, the Ramblers came out victorious in their last-ever Arch Madness appearance before Loyola moves to the Atlantic 10 Conference next season.
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 1
Although this is Valentine’s first NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach, this isn’t his first rodeo when it comes to March Madness. Under former head coach Porter Moser’s staff as an assistant coach, he helped guide the Ramblers to their 2018 Cinderella Run to the Final Four and their 2021 Sweet Sixteen appearance.
However, he also has March Madness experience beyond Loyola — in his eight years on coaching staffs, he’s helped lead teams to a total of seven postseason appearances. Two Sweet Sixteen appearances and a Final Four came from his time working as a graduate manager at Michigan State University under head coach Tom Izzo.
Returned Graduate Players: 4
Out of the 430 graduate players in NCAA Division I basketball who chose to return for their fifth year of eligibility, only 30 remained with their original team. Four of those were at Loyola — graduate forward Aher Uguak and graduate forwards Tate Hall, Keith Clemons, and Lucas Williamson, highlighted in the YouTube video published by the team April 23, 2021.
Williamson said he never really gave the transfer portal any thought following his senior year, and that his decision was between staying at Loyola or trying to play professionally. However, his relationship with Valentine helped guide his decision to stay.
“Me and Drew just built an incredible relationship, I mean it’s been such a blessing for him to come in at the same time I did,” Williamson said. “He’s always been there for me on the court [and] off the court, he’s my dog, man. I just can’t say enough.”
And these weren’t just players looking for one last year to find success — they were already established as leaders for the program. Williamson specifically cemented himself as a Rambler great, notching back-to-back MVC Defensive Player of the Year accolades in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
Valentine spoke to the impact that Williamson has had on his time in Rogers Park.
“I can’t imagine coming here and having the experience that I’ve had here as a part of this program without Lucas,” he said after the MVC Championship.
Loyola’s 30-year-old head coach made history off the court in his first season, as he was believed to be the youngest coach in Division I basketball when he was hired at the age of 19. He was also named to Under Armour’s 2017 30-Under-30 Team as one of the top coaches under the age of 30.
Following the MVC Championship, Valentine talked about how he and his brother — professional basketball player Denzel Valentine — “changed [their] families lives forever” with their success.
“You gotta believe in yourself, you gotta manifest your life” Valentine said. “The reason why you believe in yourself is because of the work you put in.”