Lead Photo
Men’s Basketball 2020-21 Season Preview

A season of sacrifice

Loyola’s men’s basketball team is preparing for its 100th season in program history, with championship aspirations and a pandemic to navigate

In a typical summer, Lucas Williamson—a senior captain on Loyola University Chicago’s men’s basketball team—would throw himself into pickup games at will. He’d shoot, and shoot, and shoot some more. And he’d keep his body in what he calls “basketball shape,” a level of fitness that regular cardio and weight lifting can’t quite approximate. 

This was anything but a typical offseason. 

Williamson’s dad is 73 years old, making him more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19. Williamson’s girlfriend also falls into a high-risk category. Because the Chicago native is taking the coronavirus seriously, open gyms were out of the question. “I just don’t know where people have been,” Williamson says. “I don’t trust people.” 

To compensate, he ran himself through high-intensity interval trainings at Loyola Park and CrossFit sessions at a gym in Evanston. He stayed connected with his teammates and coaches over text and Zoom. In short, he waited as patiently as he could for another chance to hoop safely. For athletes wired like Williamson, head coach Porter Moser equates losing floor access with “taking away their favorite toy.” 

On July 20, the men’s basketball team held its first formal practice of the 2020-2021 season—the 100th in school history, and one that promises to be the program’s most unusual yet. There was genuine excitement and relief, along with rust to sand off and trepidations to address. “On a normal, non-COVID summer, if they came back this out of shape, I’d have been irate,” Moser says. “You just have to be completely understanding.” 

In the ensuing months, the team and staff have successfully kept the virus at bay. To mitigate risk, Moser is following guidance from public health experts at Loyola Medicine, folks who “know the science” and who the athletic department trust. Some players quarantined for 14 days upon their return to Chicago. Once cleared, everyone was assigned to a “pod,” a small group (often roommates) with whom they trained and interacted. (No full scrimmages in those initial weeks, and certainly no off-campus parties.) Players wear masks everywhere, right until the moment they step onto the floor. Coaches, meanwhile, stay in masks and gloves even in the gym. Everyone scans their Loyola IDs to get anywhere in Norville Center. Nobody shares water bottles and towels. On top of it all, there’s consistent COVID-19 testing conducted through the Wellness Center. 

The MVC expects to kick off conference basketball play on December 30. Though schedules are still in flux, the NCAA has greenlit athletic directors to line up non-conference matchups starting on November 25. With so many moving pieces and pandemic-related uncertainty, Moser is asking his team to focus on what they can control, and to stay as positive as they’re able. His office door is open for socially distanced griping, should someone feel frustrated or anxious. Otherwise, the goal—winning a conference championship—remains the same. “The team that makes the most sacrifices is going to come out on top,” Williamson says. “What are we willing to give up so that we can be successful?” 

Lead Photo

Veteran leadership is critical when facing adversity, and Loyola has it in spades; in 2020-2021, they’ll return 93.2 percent of their possession minutes from a season ago (according to the statistical analyst Bart Torvick), more than all but seven teams in the entire country. To that mix, they’ll add deadly perimeter shooters in Braden Norris, a transfer from Oakland University, and redshirt sophomore Cooper Kaifes, back from a labrum injury in his hip. Torvik’s preseason projection system ranks Loyola 42nd nationally; whenever this iteration of the Ramblers takes the floor, they’ll be every bit as talented as Moser’s Final Four squad from 2018. 

Getting the opportunity to chase championship banners is not something they’re taking lightly. Even on an off-day in early October, Williamson could be found in front of his locker, donning a Loyola script shooting shirt and prepping for a solo shooting session. “On the weekends, we could be going out—the bars are open,” he adds. “Instead, we keep it tight, keep it in our apartments. We hang out with each other and talk about our goals. Nobody wants to be that guy who gets COVID and passes it to our whole team and we have to shut down. Nobody wants to be that guy.” 

In his 10th year at the helm, Moser found it reassuring just how normal the early weeks of practice felt, in spite of it all. Like he would any other year, he focused initially on fundamentals: footwork, passing, catching, shooting. (“Getting your basketball legs back under you,” is how he describes it.) And his players are taking the safety guidelines in stride. “It’s still high-intensity, it’s still about our culture. It’s still about teaching, learning, individual skill,” says Williamson. “A lot of things within those lines are the same.” 

On Moser’s first day back, the athletic department gifted him an electronic whistle. The gadget cleverly emits sound when you press a button, eliminating the need to blow. After he posted about it on Twitter, newly masked coaches from across the country bombarded him with queries. Where’d you find that? How can I get one? Ironically, Moser doesn’t have much use for it, other than distracting his dog at home. Infamously vocal, he prefers to use his booming baritone instead. 

Can Moser scream through a mask with the customary amount of force? Williamson claims volume is not an issue: “He’s still loud and clear.” 

91-45

Loyola's combined record over the past four seasons

93.2

Percentage of Loyola's possession minutes returning from 2019-2020, more than all but seven teams in the country

42

National preseason ranking, according to analyst Bart Torvik's projection system

Fall in full swing

What does college life look like during a pandemic? Though there may be fewer students on campus, things are far from quiet at Loyola this fall. View our photo gallery of fall classes to see how students are safely continuing their education and research both in and out of the classroom this semester.