After cutting down nets and being doused in water to celebrate their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship, Loyola coach Porter Moser and two seniors were the only ones who understood how to measure their happiness within that moment.
Make no mistake, Moser described himself as “ecstatic” after beating Drake 75-65 on Sunday in St. Louis to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid.
But Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig gave knowing smiles as they celebrated with the knowledge of what’s to come. As members of the 2018 Final Four team, they see this as the beginning.
“You never want to take winning for granted,” Krutwig said. “We put a lot of hard work into it. But we were sitting there saying, ‘There’s so much more to go. This feeling can be magnified by 20.’
“It’s what we felt that year. It makes you hungry to want to get back there. We know what could be in the future.”
Loyola was the NCAA Tournament darling in 2018, making a splash with last-second shots and introducing Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt to the sports world while reaching the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. The Ramblers hope to enchant fans again this year.
But now they’re familiar with Loyola. And they should be impressed.
“One of the things we wanted to do, and it’s why I’ve stayed here, was to sustain it,” said Moser, who turned down the St. John’s job after the 2018-19 season. “I welcome similarities (to 2018). I still have kind of shied away from comparing them. These guys are their own team. It’s 2021.”
It will be hard not to feel a sense of deja vu, especially if a fully vaccinated, 101-year-old Sister Jean makes the trip to Indiana. She has been calling in for pregame prayers as she watches from her Chicago apartment.
“She’s wanted to be at every game, every practice. She wanted to be here,” Moser said. “I haven’t even dug into the protocols for Indy, so I don’t know. I do know she’s going to 100% want to be there. I just don’t know if it’s possible or not. But she’s with us in spirit always.”
Moser’s ability to create a team identity around strong defense, crisp ball movement, hustle and unselfish play makes any comparisons to the Final Four team a compliment.
So what should you know about this season’s Ramblers?
Krutwig and Williamson, freshmen who played vital roles four seasons ago, are now leaders. The Ramblers (24-4) have the nation’s best defense, giving up only 55.2 points on average.
Tate Hall dived for a loose ball in the second half Sunday as two Drake players, who were much closer, crashed into each other. Hall found Keith Clemons, who hit a 3-pointer.
“That was the epitome of our defense,” Krutwig said.
The way the Ramblers passed the ball (19 assists on 26 field goals) and shot it (59.1%) against Drake certainly was reminiscent of three years ago.
Krutwig followed up on his Valley player of the year award by winning most outstanding player honors in the conference tournament. He had 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists against the Bulldogs.
Braden Norris, who also made the all-tournament team, hit 5 of 9 3-pointers and scored 20 points. Clemons made all three of his 3-pointers for 13 points.
Every time Drake attempted to catch up, Loyola answered.
The Bulldogs (25-4) made their case for an NCAA Tournament invitation, an annual burden for talented midmajor teams in so-called one-bid conferences. They were No. 40 in the NET rankings after Saturday’s games with a 6-1 record against Quad 1 and Quad 2 teams.
Moser lobbied for them too.
“They’re definitely an NCAA Tournament team,” he said.
Loyola appeared safely in regardless of Sunday’s result, which signifies another step in the team’s stature.
The Ramblers have won three of the last four Missouri Valley regular-season titles and two of the last four conference tournaments. And now they’re back in the big dance.
It speaks volumes that fans were discussing how high of a seed they deserve.
They know something bigger could be on the horizon.
“In the back of our minds, we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re not done yet,’ ” Williamson said. “We’re going to come with the same confidence we came with this weekend. Not to say, ‘Hey, we get a participation trophy.’ No, we’re going in trying to win games.”