Rambling on: Loyola up for first NCAA tourney in 33 years
CHICAGO -- Loyola of Chicago coach Porter Moser recalled dinners with Rick Majerus.
Whether they went to a fancy restaurant or a greasy spoon, it was always a local joint and never some middle-of-the-road national chain. There was no such thing as a quick bite, either, even if his boss insisted they were going for just that.
"He liked a big group. He liked to talk ball. He liked to talk movies, politics. But it was an event," Moser said. "It was a three-hour event."
The late Majerus would have plenty to chew on with Loyola heading to the NCAA Tournament. After all, the Ramblers are in it for the first time in 33 years and his former assistant is leading the way.
They bring a 28-5 record after dominating the Missouri Valley during the regular season and securing their spot by winning the conference tournament. With the 11th seed in the South Region, they will face sixth-seeded Miami in Dallas on Thursday.
They sure have come a long way in Moser's seven years, and in a city where they're often overlooked, they're suddenly a big story.
"We've been getting a lot of love around the area and people reaching out through social media," senior Ben Richardson said. "I felt like there was a dormant fan base that's kind of coming alive in Chicago."
The Ramblers drew their first sellout since 2003 for the regular-season finale against Illinois State and beat the Redbirds in the conference final. That sent them to the NCAA tourney for the first time since a loss to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the 1985 Sweet 16. And no other team from the area is going.
"It's cool that we're the only Chicago team that's gonna be in the NCAA," guard Clayton Custer said. "Having the support from the whole city is a cool thing for us. Obviously, we want to go out there and try to win some games, and hopefully the excitement will grow even more."
Northwestern stumbled badly after making the NCAAs for the first time, dropping its final seven games to finish 15-17. The Wildcats were 6-12 in the Big Ten despite having most of their top players back. But instead of another run, the school that hosted the first Final Four finds itself back in a familiar position - on the outside at tournament time.
DePaul moved from Rosemont to a gleaming new arena on Chicago's Near South Side, and the new digs were about the only thing shining for a once-proud program. The Blue Demons went 11-20 for their 11th straight losing season and finished last in the Big East for the eighth time in 10 years.
DePaul has made 22 NCAAs - but just two in 26 years. And the most recent appearance was during coach Dave Leitao's first tenure in 2004.
UIC last reached it that same year, and Chicago State has never been to the tournament. Northern Illinois - about 65 miles from downtown Chicago - has three appearances and none since 1996.
"Chicago has a great history of basketball," said Loyola forward Donte Ingram, who played at Simeon Career Academy - the South Side powerhouse that produced Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker. "I wouldn't necessarily say we're carrying the flag right now. We're just representing the city the best way we can."
The Jesuit school of about 16,000 along the lakefront on Chicago's far North Side has a big spot in NCAA history with a championship in 1963 that is a benchmark for civil rights. Loyola started four black players and brought home what remains the only title for an Illinois school.
But the years following the run in 1985 weren't easy.
Loyola had a string of 14 seasons without a winning record. That ended in 2002.
In the four years before Moser's arrival in 2011, the Ramblers finished with losing marks three times. And in his first three seasons, they won seven, 15 and 10 games before breaking through with a 24-13 record and a College Basketball Invitational championship in 2015.
A move from the Horizon League to the Valley in 2013 with powerhouse Wichita State then in the conference didn't make the job easier. But Moser was no stranger to rebuilding.
He took on big jobs at Arkansas-Little Rock and Illinois State, where he was let go in 2007 after four seasons. The four years he then spent with Majerus at Saint Louis reinforced that Moser had the right approach - to stay patient rather than go for quick fixes.
The way Majerus coached his players and developed game plans also stood out.
"He'd have eight, 10 teaching points on how to hedge a ball screen," Moser said. "The accumulation and the emphasis on all the little things added up. Sitting in a boardroom game-planning with him, to listen to his mind work on 'how we're going to take the two, three things they do best away from them?'
"To sit there for four years for 30-something games a year - and many, many meals - and listen to him (and see) how his mind worked on how he wanted to stop a team or game planning against a team, you can't put a price tag on what spending that time with him meant to me."
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