Ask any Loyola men’s basketball player, and you’ll get the same first reaction. First an exasperated ‘‘whew,’’ followed by a smile that belies the intensity of coach Drew Valentine’s practices.
‘‘He’s holding us to a high standard every day, and if we’re not where we’re supposed to be — where he wants us to be — we’re gonna hear about it, for sure,’’ said guard Desmond Watson, who transferred from Davidson.
That high standard Watson mentions is about the past. The Ramblers burst onto the national scene as the Cinderella team of the 2018 NCAA Tournament (Final Four) under previous coach Porter Moser.
Loyola followed that tournament appearance with four consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories under Moser and Valentine, plus two more tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2021.
But the 2022-23 season was a faceplant for the program. After moving to the Atlantic-10 — a product of their success — the Ramblers won only 10 games, their lowest total since 2014. It was also a season of transition in which Loyola welcomed 11 new players.
Losing was unfamiliar — and unacceptable — to Valentine.
‘‘I tell this to my players all the time: I don’t even know where all my championship rings are,’’ Valentine said. ‘‘It’s not because I take them for granted; it’s because I expect to win a new one every year.’’
As Valentine talks in his office, it’s hard not to take note of his surroundings. Loyola’s conference-championship trophies are on a shelf to his right, and a collage of accomplished Ramblers — Lucas Williamson, Cameron Krutwig, Ben Richardson and many more — are directly above him.
‘‘I don’t think we’re in the background at all,’’ Valentine said when he was asked whether Loyola had receded from the spotlight. ‘‘If you came to our games and felt our game-day atmosphere, our atmosphere didn’t change. We’re the only program in the city that has been to three of the last five NCAA Tournaments, so we know we’re still Chicago’s college basketball team, and our attendance and number of national-TV games back that up.’’
Last season, the Ramblers ranked 262nd among Division I programs in defensive efficiency (108.8) and 350th in turnover rate (22.1%). They were young, turnover-prone and didn’t defend with the same relentlessness as in previous seasons. They needed more size to compete in a more competitive conference.
‘‘Our scheme is sometimes complicated for some guys, especially on the defensive end,’’ said guard Braden Norris, who was part of those aforementioned tournament teams. ‘‘That end is where we won our championships.’’
To help solve the issues that resulted in a disappointing last-place finish in the A-10 last season, Loyola added defense, length and experience through the transfer portal.
The four transfers — Watson, forward Dame Adelekun, forward Patrick Mwamba and guard Greg Dolan — were brought in to augment the returning roster of players. Valentine said he wanted his roster to have more athleticism and to play more physically.
Norris said the transfers have fit in seamlessly with the returning talent, and their energy has been refreshing.
‘‘It’s kind of a relief with the new energy that these guys are bringing,’’ Norris said. ‘‘We had problems last year with just getting going in practice and being loud and giving energy to each other. This year, they’ve been great. Even the returners that have come back have stepped up in that aspect.’’
Valentine said he figured out he wants to play fast and expect this year’s team to play at a break-neck pace. It’s what he’s used to from playing for high-scoring teams at Oakland. Last year’s team jumped 72 spots in tempo from the previous year.
Even with the new additions, there was work to be done to improve on last season.
The Ramblers lost their first game of the season to No. 10 Florida Atlantic. Loyola fought but never posed a threat, turning the ball over and stagnating offensively.
Florida Atlantic is the blueprint for what Valentine hopes his team can return to. The Owls are returning 14 players from their Final Four team last season, and coach Dusty May said after the game that his players wanted to achieve even more.
FAU is the blueprint for what Valentine hopes his team can return to: The Owls are returning 14 players from last year’s Final Four team and coach Dusty May said postgame there was some turbulence in summer practices because guys wanted more. Valentine even drew parallels to FAU and Loyola’s team the season after the Final Four appearance.
‘‘They’re doing what they need to do to stay at a high level,’’ Valentine said after the loss to the Owls.
Now Valentine has to figure out how to return his program to the upper echelon of mid-major programs.