Men's Basketball Arch Madness

There’s more to come

Loyola University Chicago’s 18-month roundball roller coaster slowed to a halt over the weekend in St. Louis, when the men’s basketball team bowed out of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, losing a tight semifinal contest against Bradley, 53-51, effectively ending their NCAA title campaign.

The premature postseason exit was disappointing, to be sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that Loyola’s faithful—old standbys and new converts alike—have caught a nasty case of hoops fever.

Back home, attendance at Gentile Arena is nearly double what it was two seasons ago; sell-outs are common. Undergrads arrive early, sometimes lining up hours before the gates open. Eventually they cram into the student section, donning their omnipresent bi-color scarves, and scream themselves hoarse. The gym is hot, the atmosphere rowdy. Look down one sideline and you’ll see head coach Porter Moser, animated as ever, falling into a deep crouch with a look of incredulousness painted across his face. Around the bend is Sister Jean, parked in her preferred spot inside the player’s tunnel, accepting a parade of well-wishers. Above her head hangs a gleaming 2018 Final Four banner, a constant reminder of all which the school is capable.

“Chicagoans are excited about Loyola basketball. You haven’t really felt that in past years,” says senior Marques Townes. “People have taken notice.”

It’s easy, in other words, to forget how new all of this is.

Growing up in suburban Algonquin, 40 miles from Rogers Park, sophomore Cameron Krutwig knew “honestly nothing” about the Loyola program. He attended one game at Gentile as a kid, tagging along on his older brother’s recruiting visit; Krutwig remembers only that the gym, pre-renovation, felt “a little old, kinda shabby.”

Before 2018, Loyola had played in exactly three NCAA tournament games since the Beatles played Ed Sullivan. They hadn’t registered a sell-out since 2003. Attendance during Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) contests routinely dipped below 2,000. After Townes transferred from Fairleigh Dickinson two years ago, he had to wander around Lake Shore campus with flyers, pleading students to attend home games. Moser would occasionally set up shop in the Damen Student Center, slinging free hot dogs as bribes.

Then came the rupture that was the Ramblers’ March Madness run. Through some alchemical combination of talent, grit, and luck, Loyola rampaged through the postseason last spring, finishing with a 32-6 record and advancing to the national semifinals as an 11-seed, just the fourth school to do so in college basketball history. For a few intense weeks, the country’s attention (and its cameras) descended. Overnight, Sister Jean transformed into a meme, then an inspiration, then a bona fide celebrity. Krutwig couldn’t walk 10 feet to class without somebody stopping him. Townes likened the surreal experience to that of a pilot or astronaut: “The program definitely shot up in the sky.”

A 2019 curtain call was always going to be tricky. This year’s club still wasn’t big (197th in height, nationally), nor was it stacked with five-star recruits or touted transfers. Three versatile contributors were lost to graduation, including guard Ben Richardson, the most competitive defender Moser has ever coached. On top of the roster turnover, Moser stiffened the slate in November and December, scheduling match-ups against major conference powers (Maryland) and talented mid-majors (Nevada, Furman). And the glare of the hard-earned national spotlight barely wavered. There was more media attention, more television crews, more nerves. The ball wasn’t moving as crisply. Unexpected losses piled up. “In the beginning of the season, we lost sight of the process,” Townes says, during a rare off-day in February, reflecting on the Ramblers’ 7-6 start. “And coming back from the Final Four, teams were definitely trying to take their best shot.”


Ramblers' 2019 regular season record


conference regular-season titles

New-year reset

At the end of December, Moser gave his players a much-needed holiday break. Trying to recreate last year’s recipe was an understandable impulse, but ultimately self-defeating; this was a new group with new pieces and new goals. “We’ve got to keep chasing,” Moser told the Washington Post earlier this winter. “And that’s the thing I’m consumed with. Man, we’ve got to be looking out our windshield, not our rearview mirror.”

When the Ramblers returned to campus to prepare for conference play, Moser shifted the focus towards fundamentals, film sessions, and positivity. “When we came back from Christmas, Coach told us to press the restart button,” Townes says. All they needed to right the ship and position themselves for another MVC title, Townes thought, was to “string out some wins and stay steady.”

Leaning on Krutwig certainly helped. The 6’9” center spent his offseason improving his conditioning. Still baby-faced but notably slimmer than 12 months prior, he transformed into an interior force, and the undeniable focal point of Loyola’s offense. The most efficient rebounder in the MVC and a crafty passer for his size, Krutwig averaged 14.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Those are big numbers for anyone, but especially for an underclassman only scratching the surface of his potential.

Townes also took on a larger load, to great effect. Always an adept on-ball defender, the fearless New Jersey native lead the team in scoring (15.6 points per game) and assists (3.5) while displaying a confident, yet understated, swagger. His backcourt partner and the reigning MVC player of the year, Clayton Custer, still served as the Ramblers’ main orchestrator, displaying what the coaching staff calls an unflappable demeanor.


average points allowed per game (ranked 8th nationally)

55.6 %

effective field goal percentage (ranked 16th nationally)

79 %

defensive rebounding rate (ranked 1st nationally)


average fouls committed per game (9th fewest nationally)

Chicagoans are excited about Loyola basketball. You haven’t really felt that in past years. People have taken notice.”
— Senior Marques Townes

After the calendar flipped, Loyola played with a newfound urgency, rattling off seven January wins in nine tries. They kept pace with Drake and Missouri State atop the league in February, despite occasional lapses in defensive concentration and another injury to sophomore Lucas Williamson, a key rotational player. (He only suited up 15 times.) By the beginning of March, they’d rally to claim a share of the conference regular season title, securing for the second straight season the top seed in the Arch Madness tournament. If it felt like a modest step back from 2018, it also represented a run of success about which past Ramblers could only dream.

March unfolded in a largely predictable manner: Loyola plays at a slow pace, turns the ball over at a rate that still frustrates Moser, and rarely rebounds its own misses, which gives them a slim margin for error. (The Ramblers had a 23 percent chance chance to win Arch Madness, according to the advanced statistics website “You know, we lay eggs here and there,” Townes says. “We’re still trying to play consistently.”Yet the program is absolutely pointed in the right direction. Next year’s recruiting class is the most decorated in at least two decades. The newcomers will train in the state-of-the-art Alfie Norville Practice Facility, expected to open its doors summer after next. Krutwig thinks the upgraded facilities will help Loyola “lure some better players and become a destination.” Championships no longer feel like a pipe dream, but the expectation.


Just like last year, the men's basketball team—and Sister Jean—are making headlines, both locally and nationally. Catch up on some of the recent stories from the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and others. Read more