CHICAGO -- Half an hour before tipoff on a Wednesday, Loyola-Chicago players gather outside their locker room at Gentile Arena. They form a circle around a tiny woman in a black wheelchair and join hands.
It's a pregame scene that has been repeated for decades around here. Last March, it became internationally famous, mainly because of the "international celebrity" leading the ritual.
This night, the topic of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt's prayer is overcoming adversity, appropriate for the 2019-20 Ramblers. She talks about Loyola's 1962-63 team, which featured four black starters and withstood racism on its way to the school's only national championship. When finished, Sister Jean takes each player's hands and does a quick blessing.
She started blessing the players' hands before a Feb. 5 game against Drake. That night, guard Marques Townes had the hot hand, scoring a career-high 32 points in a 22-point win. It was the rare game in which Loyola's current team evoked its Final Four predecessor. This Ramblers team has traveled a rockier path, so a little something extra from their 99-year-old chaplain might help them reach their desired destination.
Why not Loyola ... again?
"We can't give up hope," Sister Jean said. "We began very well with the [Missouri] Valley [Conference]. We just hit too many losses recently. We want to go to the NCAA dance floor, and if we want to do that, we have to win the Valley. We're planning to show up there and do it."
"Everybody's out to kill us. Because if they beat a Final Four [team], that's a big feather in their hat. And if one beats us, everybody else wants to beat us."Sister Jean
Loyola will show up for the conference tournament next week in St. Louis, lacking the hype or certainty that accompanied last year's team, which won the Valley by four games and arrived at "Arch Madness" on a 14-1 surge. Last year's Ramblers performed with flair, using spacing and skill to overwhelm opponents from all over the court. Nothing has come easily for this year's team, which sits at 17-12, tied with Drake and Missouri State atop the league with two regular-season games left, including tonight's visit to Northern Iowa (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET).
Yet Loyola's reality hasn't changed. Just like last year, the Ramblers must win the Valley tournament to reach the NCAA field.
"We've been through that," coach Porter Moser said. "We've been win-or-go-home. We've been on high stakes, high platforms, so yeah, you definitely hope that guys who have been there before, that it makes a difference."
Loyola knows it can and must play at a higher level. The Ramblers' hope is to peak at the perfect time, blending past postseason experience with scar tissue built up from recent months.
"We have taken our fair share of licks this year," said sophomore center Cameron Krutwig, among the heroes of the Final Four team. "We've had some really great moments, some really OK moments. But we're here now. We've got to live in the moment."
It's been a grind for Loyola, both physically and, perhaps more so, mentally. After Sunday's loss at Southern Illinois, Loyola's third in four games, Moser said he has never felt the grind more in the Valley, which for the first time will have a champion with at least six losses.
Townes, Krutwig and senior guard Clayton Custer, the reigning Missouri Valley Player of the Year, account for 63.7 percent of the team's scoring, 60.9 percent of the assists and 47.3 percent of the minutes played. The depth from the Final Four team, which had five double-figure scorers and seven consistent producers, isn't there anymore.
"We talk about strength in numbers. It isn't on one person's shoulders, but that's a factor for our team right now," Moser said. "We need more guys stepping up. It can't be all on Krut, Clay and Marques."
Custer has received the bulk of the attention. His shooting percentage is down eight points, and he has scored in double figures only three times in the past 11 games.
"It seems like every time someone's guarding him, they're getting $1 million," Krutwig said. "They're trying to deny him the ball."
"Someone told me on ESPN that we're ranked as [a 15-seed] and playing Michigan. We'll beat Michigan this time if that happens."Sister Jean
Townes, meanwhile, is a top contender for MVC Player of the Year honors, averaging 17.8 points in league games. The problems come when two or three struggle. Sunday marked the fifth time that Loyola has scored 53 points or fewer. The offense is defined by dramatic swings: 69 points (loss to Ball State) followed by 41 (loss to Maryland) and then 80 (win over Norfolk State). Loyola ended nonleague play with 42 points at Saint Joseph's but responded with 79 against Indiana State in its league opener. After a 48-point clunker at Evansville, Loyola appeared to find a flow with a three-game win streak in which it averaged 71 points on 52 percent shooting (47.8 percent from 3-point range).
Then the Ramblers visited Missouri State on Jan. 23.
"That's a tough one," Custer said, flashing a grimacing smile. "We have no business -- with the talent we have on our team, we should never lose by 35."
Not only did Loyola lose by 35, it also scored 35, the team's lowest point total since 1998 (29 against Wisconsin). The Ramblers had an 11-point second half. But the following game, the Ramblers scored 75 against Southern Illinois, cruising to a 25-point win.
Loyola's duality was displayed Wednesday against Evansville. The first half felt like old times: 69.6 percent shooting (7-of-9 from 3-point range), 10 assists on 16 field goals and contributions from different sources (Bruno Skokna hit all three of his 3-point attempts). Then Loyola slogged to barely a point per minute for the first 16 minutes after halftime before pulling away behind Townes and Krutwig.
"There's not quite as much spacing on the floor this year just because we don't have quite as many shooters out there at all times," Custer said. "Last year, we could go into each game having the exact same plan every time because everything was running smoothly. This year, there's been a lot more adjusting and scouting and doing different things against different teams."
Loyola's opponents are also different this year.
"Everybody's out to kill us," Sister Jean said. "Because if they beat a Final Four [team], that's a big feather in their hat. And if one beats us, everybody else wants to beat us."
After the 35-point win over Loyola, Missouri State's Keandre Cook said, "We wanted to beat a team with a lot of hype in Loyola that went to the Final Four. We just wanted to make a statement."
Opponents have been the aggressors, but the Ramblers are ready to punch back, and there are reasons to believe they'll be the last team standing in St. Louis. Although their offense is a wild card, their defense is their trump card. Loyola ranks seventh nationally in points allowed (60.9) after finishing sixth last season (62.6).
Krutwig, who toned up during the offseason, slides better across the lanes and can handle attacking guards. Forward Aher Uguak, at 6-foot-7, has the length to cover four positions. The biggest boost comes from a somewhat unlikely source in Custer, who leads the team in steals (33). Late in a tight game at Valparaiso, Custer took a charge against 7-foot-1 center Derrik Smits, who stands more than a foot taller. Loyola held on for the win.
"That play is going to forever be shown to our young guys," Moser said. "Sometimes guys that have his past, playing the offense that he's had, and if it's not there, they tank the defense. He's playing the best defense of his career."
"I was always an offensive-minded player all through high school," Custer said, "and then I went to Iowa State [Custer was a freshman reserve on Fred Hoiberg's 2014-15 Cyclones], and it was kind of the 'outscore you'-type basketball. They never really instilled a lot of defensive principles in me. So when I got here, it was kind of a wake-up call because [Moser] is all about defense. I just continued to get better every year.
"A lot of times last year, people talked about our ball movement and how it was so fun to watch us play. This year, our calling card needs to be defense, defense, defense. This team has a higher ceiling defensively than our team did last year, and that needs to be what wins us the conference."
Townes has welcomed the alpha role on offense. Moser, who coached under Rick Majerus late in his career at Saint Louis, said Majerus would talk about three-level scorers: those who attacked the basket, hit 3-pointers and had midrange skills.
As a fifth-year senior, Townes has met the definition.
"I knew we were going to have some key guys going away with Donte [Ingram] and Ben [Richardson] and Aundre [Jackson]," Townes said. "I needed to be a lot better than I was last year. It's just showing. I'm extremely confident in my game."
A turbulent season hasn't shaken Loyola's confidence.
"When we're at our best, I feel like nobody can hang with us," Townes said, with certainty in his voice. The swagger carries over to Sister Jean, who, unlike the players, can look ahead and browse Bracketology.
"Someone told me on ESPN that we're ranked as [a 15-seed] and playing Michigan," she said. "We'll beat Michigan this time if that happens."
The Ramblers must find their "best" before it's too late. Moser thinks Custer has a scoring surge coming. Starter Lucas Williamson is expected back for the league tournament and possibly this week.
Moser has seen players struggle with pressure after the Final Four push. Every team loss or poor individual performance has been magnified. He has told Townes and Custer that no matter what, they have a place on Loyola's Mount Rushmore. It's time to let loose. He has implored Uguak, Skokna and freshman guard Cooper Kaifes, each of whom has shown flashes, saying Monday, "C'mon man, you've got to bring it. We're 30 games in."
It's the stretch run, and Moser wants everyone to enjoy the spotlight.
"Like [Chicago Cubs manager] Joe Maddon says, you've got to embrace that target," he said. "We're in the championship hunt. That's what we're grinding for. Not hope. Hope's a bad word for this. That's what we're grinding and working toward is to play your best basketball this time of year."
Hope's a bad word? Take that up with Sister Jean, who is ready for St. Louis.
"I hope it's déjà vu," she said. "I'm just so anxious to go. I have my list all ready."
It includes a few extra blessings.