How did Loyola create that winning formula?
Sister Jean is a treasure. May she forever serve as Patron Saint of mid-major, bracket-busting basketball teams.
But let's be honest. Sister Jean prayed for plenty of lousy Loyola teams since becoming team chaplain. She's not the reason the Ramblers sit one victory away from advancing to the Final Four.
As Loyola prepares to battle Kansas State in Saturday's South Regional final, let's try to explain how and why a school that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in 33 years suddenly got so good.
Loyola's tournament run has essentially been an extension of its entire season -- a lesson in balance, chemistry and believing in each other.
And the story is not really all that far-fetched. Mid-majors like George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have made the Final Four as No. 11 seeds. Butler played with Loyola in the Horizon League when it made two trips to the title game in 2010 and '11.
"We're not necessarily thinking about basketball immortality or what it means to get to a certain point," Loyola senior guard Ben Richardson said Friday in Atlanta. "We just want to win the next game and we're focused on what we've got to do daily in our preparation and the little things we've got to do leading up to winning the next game."
Ask eighth-year coach Porter Moser about the transformation and he's likely to respond with some justifiable coachspeak about changing the culture. But the true challenge faced by mid-major coaches is after the national powers pick out all the top stars, how does a program stand out using the more ordinary players that are left?
Keep in mind, this wasn't Moser's first attempt. The Naperville native and Benet Academy grad was something of a coaching prodigy when he became head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock at age 32, then moved on to Illinois State three years later. His run with the Redbirds didn't last long, though, fired in 2007 after posting a 51-67 overall record.
After four years of assisting Rick Majerus at Saint Louis, Moser got another chance to be a head coach. He tried some recruiting tactics at Loyola that paid off.
For one thing, he pried open the Chicago pipeline. That should be an obvious move, but for years it seemed like the best players in Chicago attend college everywhere but here.
The first major breakthrough was Marshall High School product Milton Doyle, who actually transferred after taking summer classes at Kansas. He spent four years at Loyola, now plays in the G-League and logged six games with the Brooklyn Nets this season.
Two Chicago Public League products are on the current roster -- senior forward Donte Ingram from Simeon and freshman guard Lucas Williamson from Whitney Young. Moser reeled in freshman center Cameron Krutwig from the suburbs, Jacobs High School, specifically.
Another clear strategy was targeting state champions. Moser managed to collect seven players who were state champs in high school. Clayton Custer, Richardson and Williamson won two each.
By signing Richardson out of Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., Moser created a pipeline for Custer, the Missouri Valley player of the year, who decided to join his longtime best friend after spending his freshman year playing for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State. Together, Custer and Richardson played in four Kansas state title games, winning as juniors and seniors.
Using that recruiting strategy, Moser was able to create a winning atmosphere and restore some civic pride in the storied program.
"Loyola has the only championship in Illinois. A lot of people forget that," Ingram said Friday. "We take a lot of pride in that. That's something that doesn't go away ever."
Anyway, that's how this team began. A few years of growth built to this season, when Moser felt confident the Ramblers could challenge for the MVC title. They opened some eyes by beating then-No. 5 Florida on Dec. 6 and improved steadily during the conference season.
The best way to describe Loyola's style is the ball moves to the sound of a wind chime. The Ramblers are patient, work the ball, inevitably find some space and most everyone they put on the floor can either bury an open shot or drive to the basket and finish a reverse lay in past a taller defender.
The Ramblers are fundamentally sound on defense, as demonstrated by holding Nevada scoreless for the final seven minutes of the first half on Thursday.
Krutwig was a perfect addition, bringing size to a lineup that needed it. But Loyola is versatile enough to finish with different lineups. Krutwig wasn't a great defensive matchup against Nevada, so he spent the final minutes on the bench, which wasn't unusual for this team.
Likewise, the highlight of the tournament has been three late-game shots by three different players. Ingram hit the last-second 3-pointer against Miami, Custer got a shooter's roll on the pullup jumper that beat Tennessee. Clinging to a 1-point lead against Nevada, Custer kicked it out to junior Marques Townes, who hit the clinching 3-pointer with six seconds left.
Townes is a New Jersey native who transferred from Fairleigh Dickinson and sat out last season.
If there's a weakness, it's probably that Loyola is still limited when it comes to height and athleticism. The Ramblers got a little flustered by pressure defense late in the Tennessee and Nevada games, but were able to self-soothe, execute on the offensive end and make the right play. So many of Loyola's important baskets come off great passes or solid execution.
There are no limits at this point. The Ramblers know their winning formula and now it's just a question of whether they can pull out a fourth victory and bring another historic milestone to Rogers Park.
On Friday, Moser responded to a comment about how calm his players seemed to be after Thursday's thriller.
"They enjoy the moment. Some of these team meals back at the hotel after these wins are priceless," he said. "When everybody's not around, it's just us a couple hours after these wins. Those moments are unbelievable, like little kids. The next day, it's like today. It's all about Kansas State. That's just kind of how they're wired."