At Loyola Maryland, cornerstone seniors know only a trophy guarantees a legacy

Eight days from the first game of their final men’s basketball season at Loyola Maryland, Andre Walker and Cam Gregory were asked about legacies.

These Greyhounds seniors are not the first to spend their whole careers under coach G.G. Smith, entering his fifth season in charge in North Baltimore, but Walker and Gregory were part of what he calls his “first true” recruiting class. He chose them for a reason, hoping that by the time his handpicked freshmen became hardened seniors, the program would reflect the potential for greatness he saw in them.

Three years in, Walker and Gregory were asked, what could there be to remember about a group that has won just 39 percent of its games overall and finished only as high as sixth in the Patriot League?

“The only legacy I can see is if we win a championship,” Walker said. “If we go out oh-fer, I don't want to remembered, because I'll be remembered as a loser.”

Gregory: “If we don't win, it don't really matter what we did here.”

Walker: “Four years of losing is just not a legacy that you want.”

Gregory: “Even if you got better, if you're still losing, then you still lost.”

Even amid the losing, Loyola has gotten better. Last season’s 16 wins were the most since former coach Jimmy Patsos’ 23 in his final season before decamping for Siena in 2013. Over the past three years, the Greyhounds have ascended the conference standings, slowly but surely, rising from ninth to eighth to sixth.

This year, they were voted sixth in the preseason poll. Walker noticed.

“For us to be seniors and they got us at sixth, that's insulting our leadership, saying that we can't get our team to be better than sixth place,” he said. “I feel like we're going out there with a point to prove. We don't think we're a sixth-place team in the Patriot League, definitely not, and that's what we're going to prove this year.”

Smith said this Loyola team is his deepest yet, the new levels of talent apparent in the competitiveness of practice and the flexibility of his defenses, from zone to press. Forward Jarred Jones (John Carroll), an All-Patriot League performer as a senior, is gone, but in Walker, an all-conference selection at guard, and Gregory, a forward, the Greyhounds return their top scorer and passer as well as their top rebounder, respectively.

With senior forward Chancellor Barnard (Glenelg Country) out for the season after suffering a pectoral injury and senior guard Matt Staubi, a former walk-on, playing only sparingly in the preseason exhibition, Walker and Gregory “are going to take us as far as they're going to take us,” Smith said. “If they play well, we'll be OK. If they don't play well, it's going to be a long year.”

Because Smith had served as an assistant under Patsos for six years before his promotion to head coach, neither Gregory’s nor Walker’s recruitments lacked continuity. Assistant coach Keith Booth, who was added to Smith’s staff his first year, was a fixture at Gregory’s games the summer he committed.

Walker remembers talking to Smith after a win in a New York state final his senior year in which he scored a game-high 25 points.

Smith told him he’d wanted Walker to shoot more. “From there, I was like: 'Yeah, that's where I'm going,’ ” Walker recalled.

Individually, both have done what they were told they could: Walker led the team in scoring as a sophomore and junior, while Gregory was an impact freshman, starting over half of the Greyhounds’ games in 2014-15.

Around them, the program and its culture has evolved, they hope, for the better. (“Funniest team I've ever been on,” Walker said.) Their coach has become more dynamic, and aerodynamic. (“Lost some hair because of us,” Gregory cracked.) When their last game is finished and their careers are over, they’ll remember the good times. The hope at Loyola is that, finally, they’ll include a trophy.

“That's my vision,” Smith said. “Someday, we're going to win a Patriot League championship. That's everybody's goal. The hard part is trying to figure out how to get there.”

At a glance: Loyola Maryland

Projected finish: Sixth of 10 in Patriot League

Game to watch: Dec. 23 at Memphis. The second father-son matchup of coach G.G. Smith’s Loyola career will take the Greyhounds out of Maryland, but not back to Texas Tech. In 2014-15, his second season as coach, Loyola traveled to Lubbock to face Tubby Smith’s Red Raiders. With Donna Smith, G.G.’s mother and Tubby’s wife, in attendance, the Greyhounds fell, 71-59. Tubby has since moved on to Memphis, where offseason departures have forced a program overhaul.

Best-case scenario: Senior guard Andre Walker powers Loyola to its first winning season since 2012-13, former coach Jimmy Patsos’ last year in Baltimore, as a supporting cast steps up to lift the Greyhounds into the Patriot League’s top four.

Worst-case scenario: Loyola’s defense, which last season allowed the worst field-goal percentage in the conference in league games, drags the team to the bottom of the standings, intensifying the pressure on Smith to produce a winner.

Did you know: Walker, Loyola’s most accomplished player in its Patriot League era, has earned league honors each season of his career: all-rookie team as a freshman; second-team all-conference as a sophomore; and first-team all-conference as a junior, the first Greyhound to be so honored.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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