Column: Loyola expected to be back. That resulted in a shared Atlantic-10 title and proof LU is a power

Braden Norris sat there with a basketball net draped around his neck and told the truth.

Who, on Earth, thought Loyola-Chicago could go from worst to first in its second season in the Atlantic-10 Conference and shake off every cloud hanging over its head?

The few that did reside in Rogers Park. Norris knew it could happen from the second last season ended.

"I know people probably think, ‘oh, he's just saying that,’" Norris said. "But, we're Loyola-Chicago."

The Ramblers did it.

They completed a worst-to-first turnaround, earning a share of the Atlantic-10 regular season title with a 64-54 win over La Salle at Gentile Arena Saturday. It’s proof Loyola’s success goes beyond the Missouri Valley titles and the accomplishments the program had in past years.

In the Drew Valentine era, in a more difficult conference in the Atlantic-10, Loyola proved its capable of winning championships. The Ramblers’ win Saturday was validation for themselves, and proof Loyola is a power in a different landscape.

"That's what we do," Norris said with conviction.

The turnaround Loyola 

"The fact that those guys had to be the ones that go out and do it, and then the fact that we started off the year the way that we did and then turned it and then won 15 league games in a top-eight league in the country with nine top 100 teams in it, I think it shows just the quality of their competition level and how talented they are," Valentine said.

For the players that believed it could happen, like Norris, it was validation. For the head coach, it wasn’t much validation.

Valentine had to believe. If he didn’t, how could he convince his players, especially the incoming transfers, to believe the same?

Valentine has been an assistant coach before with a Final Four team and again with a Sweet Sixteen team that upset a No. 1 seed. He’s coached in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, too.

He doesn’t doubt his ability. He doesn’t have time to do it. He apologized if it came off as arrogant, but he’s right. It’s the sign of a mature head coach.

"I have to feel that way as a 30-year-old black man being a head coach, you got to be a little bit messed up in the head," Valentine said. "It's extremely validating for the program. It's fun for that pride that we talked about restoring. That is really fun for me to see."

The pride is fully back in Rogers Park.

The new age of college basketball requires being active in the transfer portal, understanding the NIL landscape and recruiting at a high level.

Loyola has a grasp on all of that. 

Transfer Dame Adelekun figures to continue being a force for Loyola in the A-10 Tournament. Freshman center and Simeon graduate Miles Rubin is one of the best shot blockers in the conference. Combine the leadership and skill players like Braden Norris provide and the Ramblers have the blue print for success.

Saturday showed this program can follow that blue print to major success.

Norris said the success the program has enjoyed began in 2015 when Loyola won the CBI Tournament. The budding Missouri Valley Conference contenders showed their talent then. But that was under Porter Moser.

Moser, at Oklahoma now, built the eventual Final Four team with Donte Ingram, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes. That Sweet Sixteen team came later in 2021 with Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Willaimson. 

Norris was there in 2021. He knows what it’s like to cut down nets and celebrate championships. Over the years, what isn’t lost on him is what it takes to get there.

"A lot of people have sacrificed a lot for us to be in this position," Norris said. "They've given a lot of blood, sweat and tears for us to be able to do the things that we do on and off the floor. Hopefully that we just continue to keep building."

Norris also said there wasn’t much of a difference in how he cut down nets in 2021 as opposed to Saturday. It’s an interesting statement, considering the difference in the two nets he cut down.

But, who else in college basketball can say they’ve won championships in two different conferences? Whatever that number is, Norris joins a fraternity of a proud handful.

It’s a result of the pride Norris has in a university that’s become a consistent basketball contender. It was on this group to make sure that success continued and Norris helped see it through.

He never had any doubt Loyola could make it back here. Now he gets to add a banner to the Gentile Arena rafters.

"You come in our arena, you look up at the banners and you see numbers, recent numbers, you see Final Fours, you see national championships, you see all that," Norris said. "I fully expected to be back in this position."


How Loyola woke up to down La Salle on senior day and earn a share of the Atlantic-10 regular season title

Loyola leaned on Dame Adelekun and Braden Norris. The two helped push the Ramblers on senior day to clinch a share of the Atlantic-10 regular season title. Here's how Loyola won on Saturday.