How Loyola basketball chased down its confidence, and now chases a conference championship

Ever since Loyola men’s basketball joined the Atlantic-10 Conference at the start of the 2022-2023 season, the Ramblers have been chasing something.

First, it was the entire A-10. Loyola’s first year in its new digs resulted in a 10–21 overall season and a 4–14 record in conference play.

Then, Loyola was chasing consistent success after an 8-5 record through non-conference play. But that, all in the past.

Now, the Ramblers are chasing championships. The A-10 regular season title is in reach.

"We gotta be chasing, we have to be," Loyola head coach Drew Valentine said last Friday. "We're chasing a championship and so we're focused just on our day-to-day process, and why we've gotten to this point."

That is why the Ramblers' success this season is a layered subject.

Loyola’s move from the Missouri Valley to the A-10 was questioned. Why would Loyola leave the conference where the Ramblers could be the featured team in a perennial double-bid league? 

They’re showing exactly why now. The program has found the success it envisioned.

"There was so much discussion about how big of a jump to the Atlantic 10 was from the Missouri Valley for us," Valentine said. "For us to be able to have success against opponents that we didn't have success against last year, I think that confirms that."

That success has taken shape in the form of a six-game winning streak after winning Sunday’s matinée against Rhode Island. 

In this winning streak, Loyola has found its confidence. It partially stems from the Ramblers knowing what it feels like to be at the bottom of the standings.

"I feel like whenever we get into a situation now, I could imagine (coach Drew Valentine) being like, ‘We've been here before, we came back from things like that,’" Loyola forward Dame Adelekun said last Friday. "I feel like we just know what we're capable of."

Loyola is capable of a championship. 

Sitting at 11-2 in A-10 play, the Ramblers are tied with No. 16 Dayton atop the standings. Loyola hosts the Flyers on March 1 in what could be the game that decides the regular season title.

DAVIDSON, NC - JANUARY 04: Head Coach Drew Valentine of the Loyola Ramblers shouts instructions to his team during a basketball game against the Davidson Wildcats on January 4, 2023 at John M. Belk Arena in Davidson, NC. (Photo by David Jensen/Icon S

Winning that title guarantees a NIT bid at the very least. Loyola would need a deep conference tournament run to be in the conversation for an at-large bid, but winning the tournament would clinch a NCAA Tournament berth automatically.

The way the Ramblers are playing, they believe multiple championships are in their future.

"Every game we go into now, we fully believe we're going to win," Adelekun said. "No matter how the game is going."

That confidence wasn’t always there.

In fact, that confidence arrived once the Ramblers started winning games in a myriad of ways, be it with offense, with defense or with a clutch gene.

"We really struggled at times in the adversity of wanting it too bad, and what I mean by that is guys would individually maybe take a risk that they shouldn't take instead of being disciplined," Valentine said. "They're not letting a missed shot dictate their defense and they're not letting a missed shot dictate the fact that we can still go get an offensive rebound and score. So, just finding different ways the win has really helped us do that."

The excitement has caught on with the Loyola faithful, too. Upcoming home games against George Mason and Dayton are sold out at Gentile Arena.

It’s fair to say Loyola caught lightning in a bottle. The perfect time to hit a winning streak is in February when teams need to play their best basketball of the season.

Valentine isn’t a stranger to finding that lightning. He was an assistant on the Loyola team that went to the Final Four in 2018 and made a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2021.

This season is his best coaching job yet, putting together a team that overcame its early struggles and a reputation as a team with question marks around it following a conference jump.

With five games left, the Ramblers can keep that momentum going. Valentine said the team keeps that momentum by continuing to chase a championship.

The players feel the winning culture that’s been established at Loyola in the past six years. They feed into that, which delves into the team’s heightened confidence.

With that confidence in hand, the team has struck a balance.

"When you have such high confidence, you feel like you're humble," Loyola guard Des Watson said Friday. "But you also have confidence where you feel like nothing can stop you at the same time."


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