Former YSU rival
goes from worst to Final Four
By Brian Dzenis
Youngstown State and Loyola-Chicago were far apart five years ago.
When the Ramblers and Penguins last met on a basketball court was the opening round of the 2013 Horizon League Tournament on March 5. DJ Cole’s layup with 2.5 seconds left clinched a 62-60 win and a three-game sweep of the Ramblers.
That year, head-coach Jerry Slocum finished his second consecutive winning season, which included a CollegeInsider.com Tournament appearance. Loyola coach Porter Moser more than doubled his team’s win total from the previous season, but was 15-16 and went 5-11 in the League.
Five years after that game, the two programs remain far apart.
Moser and the Rambers are members of the Missouri Valley Conference and on Saturday, they face Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. YSU is rebuilding under second-year head coach Jerrod Calhoun.
For some who remember Loyola’s time in the Horizon League at YSU, the Ramblers’ run is baffling.
“I’m shocked that in five years after they moved to the Valley, that they reached the Final Four,” said Robb Schmidt, YSU assistant athletic director and the team’s play-by-play announcer on the radio.
YSU’s history is not very illustrious in men’s basketball, but the Penguins historically have handled the Ramblers. The Penguins are 10-4 all-time against Loyola, making it the only Division I basketball team against which the Penguins have at least 10 wins and a winning record.
“I felt we would have been in the dance at that time, but they had potential then,” former YSU player Kamrin Bellin said. “I always felt like they had decent pieces — like they would have one decent guard and a decent big.”
Despite being a founding member of the Horizon League in 1980, the Ramblers won the League just once and in their final six years in the League, finished no better than seventh place.
“I have cool memories about our trips to Chicago in general. We had a chance to play in their new gym at the time, which was really cool,” former Penguin Blake Allen said. “In my senior year when we beat them three times, it was all at the buzzer. One of those was a shot that I hit at home.”
THE UNLIKELY INVITE
It was power conference machinations that got Loyola out of the League. The seven non-football playing schools in the “old” Big East made a mass exit to form a new league with the same name, which sent aftershocks throughout college basketball. Those seven schools recruited Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 Conference and Creighton from the MVC. That vacancy in the MVC was filled by Loyola.
“For those of us that were working there, we weren’t as surprised as the general public was,” Loyola assistant AD Bill Behrns said. “A lot of people raised their eyebrows when we got the invitation, but with what’s happened in the short five years, it validated the Valley’s decision and what they saw and heard from our university’s administration about our potential.
“It was validating for our administration too and its commitment to athletics, because a lot of people were saying, ‘Why Loyola?’” he added. “Hopefully, that question has been answered.”
There were a few factors in Loyola’s appeal. The location was appealing from both an ease of travel to current members and bigger market standpoint. The MVC had an existing television deal with FOX Sports Midwest — which broadcast in Chicago before FOX Sports Chicago emerged — and Comcast Chicago.
“With the deals centered around FOX Sports Midwest and Comcast Chicago, it was important to get their footprint in,” former Loyola broadcaster John Fitzgerald said. “We always wondered, ‘Eh, we don’t draw well in the Chicago market.’ This is a pro sports city and it has been for a number of years. We weren’t sure that it was going to increase coverage, but TV was a big portion of it.”
Loyola also offered a touched-up Joseph J. Gentile Center, which underwent renovations in 2011.
Behrns said it will take months for the university to fully realize the impact of its Final Four appearance. The athletic department received word that apparel sales had gone up by 1,000 percent.
“The publicity we’ve got is unbelievable and I know there was a study when Butler made it in 2010 or 2011. I think the study said the dollar-value of the free advertising was like $177 million,” Behrns said. “I imagine we’ll be pushing that mark — if not popping it.”
A FORMULA TO WIN
Appealing locations and TV deals are nice, but what’s happening on the court matters. Moser, a Rick Majerus disciple, had some rough years with the Ramblers — finishing in last place in two of his first three seasons across the Horizon League and MVC. For Fitzgerald, Moser was someone with a plan night in and night out.
“There was a lot of energy around the program despite what happened on the court and I was really impressed with his ability to coach in a game-by-game basis,” Fitzgerald said. “You could see aspects of him going into a game whether or not it was a team we were underdogs against, he could flat out coach and game plan and I could really see it in his last year in the Horizon League.”
For the current YSU regime, Loyola’s run hasn’t gone unnoticed. As Calhoun sees it, any run from a mid-major team is a win for all mid-majors.
“It gives coaches and more importantly, the players hope. It’s given mid-major teams around the country hope,” Calhoun said. “You look at Moser’s past — they were really struggling — and the fan base and athletic department stuck by him. You’re seeing what a lot of hard work and a team that’s really connected. It’s very awesome to see.”
Calhoun views the Final Four runs of Loyola and George Mason and Butler before them through the lens of how he wants to build his team — featuring great guard play. Both the current and former Penguins are in agreement: they want to see the Ramblers win.
“For me as somebody who played at a mid-major school, any time you see a mid-major make a run make a deep run in the tournament, it’s really fun,” Allen said. “You definitely root for those teams to go really far.”