Loyola Chicago back to winning ways after struggling in a big way a year ago


CHICAGO (AP) — Loyola Chicago was reeling after a rough loss to South Florida early this season when coach Drew Valentine decided to have a heart-to-heart conversation with his team.

That moment of reflection wound up becoming a turning point in the season.

Six years removed from a Final Four run that made a 98-year-old nun a celebrity, Loyola is winning big again. The Ramblers are as hot as any team in the Atlantic 10 and have their sights set on the NCAA Tournament.

Loyola (19-7, 11-2) is tied with Richmond for the league lead, with No. 16 Dayton a half game back. It’s a welcome change for the Ramblers after finishing last in the Atlantic 10 a year ago following a move from the Missouri Valley Conference. If they beat George Mason at home on Saturday, they’ll double their win total after going 10-21.

“This program is built on championships,” guard Braden Norris said. “It’s great that we’re going to hit 20 wins here soon, the turnaround that we’ve had, but we’re here to win a regular-season championship — we’re in a great place — and then go on to Brooklyn and win three games in a row there (in the conference tournament) and then see what we can do in the (NCAA) Tournament. That’s our goal.”

Things weren’t looking so good for Loyola after they “got punked,” as Valentine put it, in a lackluster loss at South Florida in mid-December. The Ramblers were 6-5, with losses to two teams ranked in the top 10 at the time in FAU and Creighton. They’re 13-2 since then and come rolling into Saturday’s game with six straight wins.

“I think it was just like a look-in-the-mirror type of moment for us,” forward Philip Alston said. “We all kind of just told each other that we were going to really take this to the next level. I think we did.”

Loyola remains the only school from Illinois to win the NCAA title, with a team that plowed over racial barriers capturing the prize in 1963. The Ramblers came close again with a Final Four run in 2018, hitting several last-second shots with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt — now 104 — by their side for their first tournament appearance since 1985.

They returned to the Sweet 16 in 2021 and got back to the NCAA Tournament the following year, in Valentine’s first season after former coach Porter Moser left for Oklahoma.

Valentine obviously had quite an act to follow when, at age 29, Loyola promoted him after four years as an assistant with the Ramblers. They went 25-8 and won the Missouri Valley Tournament in his first year before bottoming out in the Atlanta 10. Loyola struggled to replace star Lucas Williamson, who played on the Final Four team, along with several other key players and went 4-14 in league play last season.

It was, Valentine said, “not fun” and enough to make him question whether he was doing things the right way. His conclusion? He was doing things the right way.

The 32-year-old Valentine played a big role in Loyola’s rise as an assistant. He helped recruit some of the Ramblers’ best players and basically coordinated a defense that ranked among the nation’s stingiest.

Valentine’s father Carlton is a successful high school coach in Michigan who played at Michigan State in the 1980s. Younger brother Denzel starred for the Spartans and went on to the NBA.

“I have such a strong foundation with my beliefs and how I was raised in the game,” Drew Valentine said. “So I just doubled down on it. We went to work with our roster and, I think, got our roster to the point where we could be competitive. It also helped that our resources went up; I think you can read between the lines on that. And I think our roster improved because of that. The guys that came back, they believe in this place.”

Guard Des Watson could see it when when he made his recruiting visit. He chose to transfer to Loyola over Dayton after two years at Davidson and is averaging a team-leading 13.1 points in his first season with the Ramblers.

“A lot of people were questioning why would I come to Loyola, we beat Loyola last year when I was at Davidson last year, ‘why would you go to that coaching staff,'” Watson said. “There’s certain stuff you can just hear in people’s voice and you just know. With Drew, I could hear in his voice that he was ready for a switch and he was ready to turn the team into something different.”


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