Ram­blers head to Charm City

Fresh from its Fi­nal Four ap­pear­ance, Loyola Chicago chal­lenges Mary­land in Clas­sic

The Capital - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

The cel­e­bra­tion that be­gan last sea­son for Loyola Chicago with its se­cond Fi­nal Four trip in school his­tory — 55 years af­ter the first — went on for months.

There were pep ral­lies on the school’s cam­pus af­ter the Ram­blers reached the Sweet 16 and then beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight to earn a trip to San An­to­nio for col­lege bas­ket­ball’s pre­mier event.

There was Open­ing Day at Wrigley Field, where one of last year’s he­roes — Ben Richard­son — threw out the first pitch and oth­ers, in­clud­ing coach Porter Moser, sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” dur­ing the sev­en­thin­ning stretch.

And there was a ban­ner-rais­ing cer­e­mony in­side cozy Gen­tile Arena for the sea­son opener, where Sis­ter Jean Dolores Sch­midt, the team’s 99-yearold good luck charm, was pre­sented with a Fi­nal Four ring.

But as with many un­ex­pected and pro­longed cel­e­bra­tions, there has been a hang­over of sorts.

When the Ram­blers ar­rive at Royal Farms Arena to play No. 23 Mary­land to­day at 4 p.m. in the se­cond game of the Charm City Col­lege Clas­sic, they will do so with a 5-4 record, in­clud­ing losses in three of their past four games.

“We haven’t said the rea­son we have some losses is that we have a bull’s eye on our back,” Moser said Fri­day af­ter a prac­tice at Johns Hop­kins. “We’re not us­ing that as an ex­cuse.

“It’s true. You see peo­ple [fans and play­ers on other teams] are fired up,. You can hear the com­ments that they make and the ef­fort we see. We weren’t great at the be­gin­ning of the year last year. It’s just a process of get­ting bet­ter with what we do de­fen­sively.”

Red­shirt se­nior guard Clay­ton Custer has also no­ticed a dif­fer­ence.

“You try to fo­cus on the game plan and try to ex­e­cute, but a few of the games we lost, the other team got re­ally, re­ally ex­cited and they re­ally cel­e­brate and seem happy that they beat a team that went to the Fi­nal Four,” Custer said Fri­day.

On top of that, Moser said Custer and Mar­ques Townes, the team’s other red­shirt se­nior leader, are try­ing to carry too much of the load.

The Ram­blers lost two starters, Richard­son and Donte In­gram, and sixth man Aun­dre Jack­son, from last year’s team that fin­ished 32-6 over­all and won 21 of 22 games be­fore los­ing to Michi­gan in the na­tional semi­fi­nals.

Sopho­more guard Lu­cas Wil­liamson, who was ex­pected to take over for Richard­son, and ju­nior guard Bruno Skokna are both out with in­juries. The Ram­blers are cur­rently start­ing two true fresh­men, guards Isa­iah Bu­j­doso and Cooper Kaifes.

Moser also points to a bulked-up sched­ule as part of the team’s slow start.

Be­fore Wed­nes­day’s 75-69 home de­feat to Ball State, the three other teams Loyola lost to en­tered Fri­day with a com­bined record of 23-2. Two of them — early-sea­son sur­prise Fur­man and No. 6 Ne­vada — re­main un­beaten.

“Ev­ery team we’re play­ing, we’re in a gaunt­let and now we’re play­ing Mary­land and we’ve still got to go to the Palestra to play [Saint Joseph’s],” Moser said. “It’s fair to say that there’s so much noise on the out­side com­ing in.

“Ev­ery­where we go, the me­dia, the com­par­isons to last year. That’s just a real part of it. I wanted the pro­gram to be rel­e­vant, so I’m not [com­plain­ing]. I want to get bet­ter and we’re not as good as we need to be right now.”

Moser pre­pared for the added at­ten­tion and pres­sure this sea­son by vis­it­ing with a for­mer coach­ing ri­val, Bos­ton Celtics coach Brad Stevens, dur­ing the NBA pre­sea­son to talk about how to pre­pare a team a year af­ter un­ex­pect­edly go­ing to the Fi­nal Four.

Stevens took But­ler to back-to-back Fi­nal Fours — reach­ing the cham­pi­onship game both years. The Bull­dogs lost to top-seeded Duke in the 2010 fi­nal when Gor­don Hay­ward’s half­court shot nearly banked in at the buzzer, then lost to No. 3 seed Con­necti­cut the fol­low­ing year.

“[For­mer But­ler star] Matt Howard hap­pened to be there and I talk­ing to them, ask­ing them, ‘How was that year af­ter you went the first time?’ ” Moser said. “They talked about the in­tense pres­sure, the noise from the out­side look­ing in.”

When Howard re­minded him But­ler started the year af­ter the first Fi­nal Four with a 4-4 record — and at one point were only 14-9 — Moser took Townes and Custer out to lunch one day and told them about But­ler’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I told them, ‘Let’s have fun with this. It’s not on all your shoul­ders,’ ” Moser said. “We’re aware of it. We’re not play­ing nearly as well as we can, but that’s part of it. We’ve played some re­ally good teams and we’ll grow from it.”

KEVIN C. COX / GETTY IM­AGES

Sis­ter Jean Dolores Sch­midt cel­e­brates with Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser af­ter de­feat­ing Kansas State in the 2018 Elite Eight last year.

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