Loyola breaking out after struggling in recent years

CHICAGO (AP) Loyola of Chicago coach Porter Moser thought it was nothing more than a prank by a friend at first when one of the most important calls of his career came.

It didn’t take him long to realize Rick Majerus really was on the other end.

These days, Moser is overseeing a breakout season at Loyola, and the Ramblers (12-3, 2-1 Missouri Valley Conference) would really open some eyes if they knock off No. 15 Wichita State on Sunday.

”God works in mysterious ways,” he said.

The Ramblers have already eclipsed last season’s win total of 10 heading into Sunday’s home game against the Shockers and are on course to reach the postseason for the first time in three decades.

With his team in position to make that jump, Moser could not help but think back to the call from Majerus in 2007. He had just been let go by Illinois State at a time when he thought he had the Redbirds poised for big things. Instead, he was out of a job after four years and a 51-67 record.

Majerus, who was planning to take the St. Louis position, was looking for an ace recruiter with head coaching experience.

Three friends recommended Moser, and although they did not know each other, the two developed a strong bond over their four years together.

”He meant a lot to me,” Moser said. ”I learned so much from him. That’s why God works in mysterious ways – to put me there and that led me to here.”

Loyola is making a case for its first postseason berth since a loss to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the 1985 Sweet Sixteen. Pulling off the, um, shocker on Sunday would only strengthen their argument.

”It would be great for us,” said forward Christian Thomas, the team’s leading scorer. ”I think now, we’re kind of making a little bit of noise, but there’s still not a whole lot of certainty about our program. I think getting that signature win against a top 25 team is just gonna show everyone that we’re for real and can do this.”

The Chicago area’s college basketball programs have not given fans much to cheer in recent seasons.

Once-proud DePaul has struggled for years, although the Blue Demons are 3-0 in Big East play and are scheduled to move into a new arena in the city in a few years. Northwestern, the school that hosted the first Final Four, is banking on coach Chris Collins to lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament. UIC last made the NCAA tournament 10 years ago and Chicago State never has.

Loyola, a Jesuit school of about 16,000 on the city’s North Side, captured the 1963 NCAA championship with four black starters in a landmark game for racial integration. But it has not made much noise in recent decades.

”Chicago’s craving for a team to step up,” Moser said. ”It’s been so hard to continue to do this, but I’m very passionate to try to turn this thing.”

When Moser took over in 2011, he inherited a program with four straight eighth-place finishes in the Horizon League and few recruiting roots in one of the nation’s most fertile grounds. Loyola went 7-23 and 1-17 in conference play his first year.

The next two seasons weren’t easy either. The Ramblers struggled last year, winning just four conference games after replacing Creighton in the Missouri Valley, but they are seeing a payoff.

”Coach did a really good job with Christian and I, teaching us the culture,” senior Joe Crisman said. ”Just grinding day in and day out, that hopefully that light at the end of the tunnel was coming.”

Six of the 14 players are from Illinois and seven come from the Chicago area. Moser, who’s from suburban Naperville, and all four of his assistants are either from the city or the state.

”There were so many people – AAU coaches, high school coaches – that hadn’t been on our campus, that had these kids’ ears,” Moser said. ”We had to start with them. Then we got the players on this campus. … We want these kids at Loyola.”

When they come in they see a sparkling 5,000-seat arena that sparkles after a major transformation a few years ago. They see a program that appears to be on the rise, with Majerus’ fingerprints on it in some ways.

Moser mentioned his former boss’s attention to fundamentals, his ”amazing way to see the game.” There’s the ”Wall of Culture” in the locker room with ”a million little sayings” such as ”eyes to the rim” and ”reach for the lights.” About 95 percent of them are what Moser calls ”Coach Majerus-isms.”

”That’s how you build a system and a culture,” he said. ”Our guys believe in it.”