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ATLANTA -- When the clock starts to wind down on Saturday in the Elite Eight, pay attention to Loyola-Chicago's players. They'll start to hold up four fingers, a symbol of their commitment to the final four minutes of play. For a team that's won now 31 games and is one more victory away from the Final Four, it's winning time.
There's a deep commitment to winning basketball that runs through this program, but it hasn't always been that way. To complete what head coach Porter Moser called a "grassroots rebuild" at Loyola, it's taken a group that has winning built into its collective DNA.
Seven players on Loyola's roster were state champions in high school, two of them playing together and winning back-to-back titles at Blue Valley Northwest in Overland Park, Kansas. Both Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson both played for Ed Fritz during a run that included more than 90 wins and two Kansas 6A state championships.
"I'm telling you, it was by design, but we had seven of these guys win state championships," Moser explained after the Ramblers defeated nevada 69-68 in the Sweet 16. "When you have that winning gene, and I love that, these guys, they just keep believing. They keep believing. They keep buying in. So it's just grown."
"Different guys, different nights"
Moser used the phrase "different guys, different nights" several times after the win to describe his team and this NCAA Tournament run. It's true, whether it's Clayton Custer, Aundre Jackson, Ben Richardson or Marques Townes, there always seems to be a different star for the Ramblers.
"It comes from spending so much time together in the offseason," Moser told CBS Sports. "Grinding together, whether it's conditioning or boot camp. We're a close group. Our culture, our locker room has been great from the beginning. They're unselfish, they share the ball and they believe. It's sincere."
The way Loyola works the ball around the floor on offense really is a thing of beauty. Looking for the right shot, regardless of player, powers this "different guys, different nights" advantage that has made the Ramblers resilient even in the most trying times on the floor.
'Put it in the bank'
Loyola has always been considered one of the better teams in college basketball. A top-50 team by nearly every metric that consistently received votes in the top 25 polls, the Ramblers were in the precarious position of being a mid-major clearly good enough to compete in the NCAA Tournament but lacking the kind of profile that can get you an at-large bid. Loyola won at Florida, but the Missouri Valley Conference schedule didn't set them up well if the team fell short of receiving the league's automatic bid at Arch Madness.
But none of that noise made its way into the Loyola locker room. There's been a hunger that Moser says was evident after claiming a share of the MVC regular season title. They didn't want a share, they wanted to win it outright. Loyola didn't want to win the conference tournament to avoid some kind of mid-major bubble collapse, it wanted to win because there's an insatiable hunger to defeat every foe and welcome the next challenge.
"These guys didn't get ahead of themselves. There was so much talk, we needed to win the conference tournament, but we didn't get ahead of ourselves," Moser said. "Seeing that maturity, the mentality. They're never panicked, every game they played their tails off. We've got this mantra 'put it in the bank, next one up' and that's what they've had in this tournament. Every win, put it in the bank, next one up. That's why you're not seeing these crazy celebrations. This is a group that's hungry, wants more and they believe."
Now, Moser says, the Ramblers are greedy and want more when they face No. 9 seed Kansas State, which upset No. 5 seed Kentuckym in the Elite Eight.
Media members lined around corner waiting to get into Loyola's locker room, where they would fight for space looking to capture the apparent Cinderella No. 11 seed in jubilation after punching a ticket to the Elite Eight. Inside the locker room, the only thing unusual was flip chart-sized diagrams of Nevada's offensive sets were tacked to the walls everywhere. And even that, it turns out, was as routine as anything else that has helped the Ramblers in their 31 wins.
Belief is something that is not foreign to this Catholic school from Chicago, and certainly not considering the strong influence of Sister Jean. The 98-year old nun and Team Chaplain has given this team, in its first NCAA Tournament since 1985, has been an example of faith and strength for the team, providing messages of encouragement and guiding the group on their own journeys through life and basketball.
When Loyola's players hold up four fingers at the end of the game, it's a symbol that it's time to play smart, take care of the ball and get stops. They have confidence because it's in their nature, but the execution comes as a result of belief in each other on the floor.