Around Chicago sports over the years, perhaps only Bears fans fixated on 1985 more than Loyola basketball followers.
So when the Ramblers ended 33 years of waiting Sunday by returning to the NCAA tournament, the moment carried meaning that went beyond words.
Coach Porter Moser tried anyway, calling a 65-49 victory over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game in St. Louis a “watershed moment.” Donte Ingram, a senior from Simeon who was the tournament’s most outstanding player, declared on the podium that “it means a lot for the city of Chicago.’’
Somewhere in Homewood, Alfredrick Hughes just smiled. From Rogers Park to every playground in the city, and on campuses across the state, the context of Loyola basketball had changed.
What the NCAA tournament achievement says to the various basketball constituents in Illinois depends on who’s receiving the message.
DePaul: The clock is ticking louder than ever.
At least it should be. Every Blue Demons fan or alumnus has the right to wonder why DePaul can’t turn its program into a source of pride the way Loyola has. Every bit of pressure applied to athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto after seeing Loyola make the NCAA tournament is appropriate.
Selection Sunday hasn’t mattered at DePaul since 2004. That’s embarrassing for a school that once enjoyed such a rich basketball tradition, but not even Loyola’s success figures to shake the status quo in Lincoln Park.
For reasons hard to grasp, Lenti Ponsetto enjoys job security rare for an athletic director whose marquee program continues to fail. From whiffing on Jerry Wainwright and Oliver Purnell to rehiring Dave Leitao, the DePaul AD escapes accountability many of her peers can’t avoid. Chances are the university hierarchy, led by new President A. Gabriel Esteban, will view Loyola’s emergence as a testament to the patience shown Moser, who won only 32 games over his first three seasons with the Ramblers.
Leitao has won 29 in the same period during his second tour. While president at Seton Hall, Esteban saw coach Kevin Willard post losing records in two of his first three seasons before achieving Big East consistency. One can almost predict Lenti Ponsetto’s talking points if she ever addresses the sad state of the DePaul program, which has a shiny, new building but the same old, tired results.
Illinois: More in-state competition for talent looms.
Coach Brad Underwood experienced a fairly typical first season full of mixed results. Offensively, the Illini lacked the proper personnel to execute his system, struggling to finish 10th in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage. Defensively, they established more of an identity, leading the conference in steals with a swarming style that bodes well.
The continued development of Trent Frazier and the arrival of Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu offer the Illini reasons for hope. Underwood shows promise, but recruiting Chicago and the rest of the state just got a little tougher.
Much the way Butler emerged in Indiana to give in-state recruits another option besides Indiana and Purdue, Loyola threatens to become a player in recruiting capable of landing homegrown talent. Look at Ingram and NBA player Milton Doyle, the Marshall product who transferred to Loyola from Kansas. They paved the local lane for Lucas Williamson of Young and Cameron Krutwig from Jacobs. The Loyola roster includes four contributors who prepped in Illinois – enough to get the Illini’s attention.
Northwestern: The honeymoon is over.
The darlings of March only 358 days ago, the Wildcats just quietly ended an underachieving season as forgettable as last year was memorable. Complacency wore purple this winter as Northwestern rested on its laurels, expecting its NCAA tournament pedigree to matter.
The Wildcats spent so much time living in the past that they neglected the present, something they will regret forever in the future. Now, in a market swallowed by pro sports, Northwestern basketball finds itself back in a familiar position of fighting for relevance – with Loyola suddenly making bigger headlines.
Illinois-Chicago: Keep grinding.
Besides Loyola, UIC came the closest to capturing Chicago’s interest this season. Coach Steve McClain deserves credit for the job he did in winning 17 games for the second straight year after going 5-25 in his first season.
McClain, an indefatigable recruiter, attacks the job the same way Moser does. The Flames will head into the offseason believing they can challenge for the Horizon League title next season – and the automatic NCAA berth that comes with winning the conference tournament.
Chicago Public League coaches and players: The door to Gentile Arena is open.
Come in, look around and soak in the culture Loyola preaches every day. Ask Ingram or Doyle or Williamson. Tell a tall friend. Consider being part of a program that competes in a conference full of tradition for a coach who makes the game fun. And take the L if you like.
Porter Moser: Faith pays off.
Illinois State fired Moser in 2007 after a 51-67 record over four seasons with 3 years left on his contract. Redemption came in cutting down the nets Sunday after defeating the team that thought he couldn’t coach.
Moser never doubted himself, and neither did the late Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus – who offered an assistant coaching job that rejuvenated Moser’s career. At Loyola, Moser maintained enthusiasm despite struggling his first 3 years at a program that had only five winning seasons since 1985 before he arrived.
He never changed. The culture did.
Now, Moser’s team is in the NCAA tournament, and his name will be mentioned for jobs that offer more money and bigger stages. But Moser, a Benet graduate who grew up in Naperville, feels at home in a place that has become more than a steppingstone for coaches – because of Moser’s belief it could be.