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Loyola, beaming with confidence, doesn’t want to be ‘one-hit wonder’

Loyola doesn’t want to be thought of as a “one-hit wonder” after its remarkable Final Four run last season. In fact, last season was just the beginning.

Coming off their best season in 55 years, the Ramblers are beaming with a newfound confidence.

“Going into this year, we believe that we can beat anybody that we can play,” redshirt senior Clayton Custer said. “That’s the big thing for me, honestly. [The run] gave us a confidence going into this year that we can beat anybody.”

But is it realistic Loyola could make it back to the Final Four?

Loyola-Chicago guard Clayton Custer (13) shoots over Tennessee's Jordan Bowden (23) and Jordan Bone (0) and scores in the final seconds of a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. The shot helped Loyola to a 63-62 win. | Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

“I don’t know if that’s our goal,” sophomore Cameron Krutwig said.

And Custer was also hesitant to look that far ahead.

“We can’t jump straight to March and try to make it to the Final Four,” he said. “We have to worry about the next game we’re going to play.”

Putting last season’s success in the rearview mirror is exactly what coach Porter Moser wants his players to do as they prepare to open their season Tuesday against the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

When Moser took over Loyola’s basketball program in 2011, it was never about building a team. Moser wanted to create a winning culture and a sustainable program.

Last season is proof that the method to Moser’s madness is working.

But there’s still work to be done, and his players acknowledged that.

“We just want to build a great program — kind of a household name,” Krutwig said. “Knowing that when you’re going to play Loyola, you’re going to play a team that’s tough, who is going to get after you on defense and who’s going to be efficient on offense and play the right way. If we do that, the results will take care of themselves.”

When people think of Loyola basketball, Sister Jean comes to mind. The Ramblers still have a long ways to go until they’re of national prominence.

Just look at the preseason rankings.

Six months removed from finishing No. 7 in the final 2017-18 USA Today coaches poll, Loyola was left out of both the AP Top 25 and USA Today rankings.

But Moser wasn’t disappointed that his team was an outlier on those lists.

“Last year when we were picked third [in the Missouri Valley Conference] . . . we didn’t use that as motivation,” Moser said. “It doesn’t matter.

“We lost three really good guys. We shouldn’t be in the AP Top 25 right now. I want to be in the AP Top 25 in March.”

The three key players Moser is referring to are Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson, who all signed contracts to play professional basketball this summer.

But even without that trio, Moser is bringing back nearly half of his players, including guard Marques Townes; Custer, who was named last season’s conference Player of the Year; and Krutwig, the reigning MVC Freshman of the Year.

The Ramblers are also welcoming a group of newcomers that includes 6-foot-9, 245-pound center Franklin Agunanne and Indianapolis transfer Tate Hall.

Sophomore Aher Uguak will also see his fair share of court time. He sat out last season after transferring from the University of New Mexico.

Moser expects it’ll take at least 10 games for him to have a better idea of this team’s “personality” as he works on meshing the new talent with the returners. And even though he expects to hit a few bumps and bruises along the way, that doesn’t take away from what he expects from his team.

“Greatness has no finish line,” Moser said. “We want to put the foot on the gas pedal. We want to get better, get better, get better. That’s my expectation. I think a lot of things will fall in place if we’re getting better and we’re chasing.

“When you say ‘I expect us to win’ — well, yeah. Everybody does. But we expect to play a certain way and when we have high expectations for how we’re going to [play] . . . winning is going to be right there.”

And as for making it to the NCAA Tournament again?

“Of course that’s what you’re going for,” Moser said. “That’s what you want. You expect to get better. But we know it’s a long road. But absolutely, if anybody is sitting here in November and saying, ‘We don’t want to play in March’ — then I don’t know. You don’t have a pulse.”