Erik Etherly will not listen to anyone who says Loyola's schedule was easy last year — unless those critics also went up against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Kentucky's Anthony Davis.
While Davis (who went No. 1 to the Charlotte Bobcats) and Sullinger (who was picked No. 21 by the Boston Celtics) are preparing for their rookie year in the NBA, Etherly is taking part in the Baltimore Summer League at Loyola's Reitz Arena, fighting for rebounds with guys who are just hoping to catch a glimpse of action with their Division II or III teams in the fall.
And Etherly is OK with that. After leading Loyola to its first Division I NCAA tournament appearance in almost 20 years, Etherly, a senior forward, got a taste of March Madness and wants more.
"It was a great feeling. We came together as a team," he said last week at the BSL. "It was one of those things that you don't get to do too often. You don't see too many teams where five people effectively average double digits. It was a total team effort and it was a lot of fun."
Loyola faced Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament after clinching an automatic bid by defeating Fairfield, 48-44, in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship. The Greyhounds lost to Sullinger's Buckeyes, 78-59, ending one the best years in program history. Loyola fell to Davis' Kentucky squad — the eventual national champions — 87-63 in December.
Competing against such tough competition has Etherly — who led the Greyhounds in blocks (50), rebounds (246) and points (452) last season — feeling confident about his team's chances during the 2012-13 season. But he said he doesn't want last year's accomplishments to distract the team from going further in the tournament next year.
"We're still the same team that we were before [the NCAA tournament]," he said. "We're not the kind of team that might get hyped off of some success. We felt that success once and now we want to feel it again and hopefully go farther next year in March Madness."
For Etherly and other Greyhounds, the journey to return to postseason play starts now, far from March and far from the madness that it brings. For now, they are escaping the summer heat playing games at their home arena in front of small crowds of friends, family and players waiting their turn for the next game.
Unlike the regular season, there are no fans screaming at referees and not even coaches to protest their calls — the players coach themselves. And there are hardly enough people in attendance to hear even a modest chatter. Some may think the environment mundane, but to Etherly, it's perfect.
"This summer league has been great because it's allowed us to have some in-game experience throughout the summer when normally we would just be working out by ourselves," Etherly said. "It's been a great opportunity for us and it's nice to play against some other competition."
Aside from playing in the league, Etherly is also spending hours a day in the gym and attending occasional team practices. His teammate Anthony Winbush is heading to Chicago to train with his cousin, Dickey Simpkins, a former Chicago Bull.
Loyola junior guard Dylon Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons) said he hardly ever leaves campus, preferring to stay focused on improving his game.
"[I'm] being a gym rat and working out; never leaving here," Cormier said with a smile. "I'm usually here about two or three hours a day just working out in the weight room and lifting. As a team, we have three hours of practice a week so we are trying to better ourselves in practice, too."
He added that playing for Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos, who won a national championship as an assistant at Maryland in 2002, is extra motivation to work hard in the offseason.
"It makes us work harder and he expects the best from us every time out," Cormier said. "No matter what. No matter if we are sick or anything. 'No excuses,' is his favorite phrase. So every time we are out on the court we just try to step up and play hard for him."
Stepping up is a concept Etherly is also taking to heart as a rising senior.
"I need to be a leader and be a veteran player out there," Etherly said. "We have a lot of people out there, but as a senior it's just stepping up, being a leader and doing what has to be done."
Etherly and his teammates understand that a national championship is unlikely for a MAAC team. But if the Greyhounds don't make a deep run in next year's NCAA tournament, it won't be for a lack of effort.
"Every game we got on the schedule we can win this year," Etherly said. "We just have to do what we did last year and then some."
Baltimore Summer League
What: Six teams featuring players from Loyola, UMBC, Bowie State, St. Mary's, Johns Hopkins and other local schools.
Where: Reitz Arena
When: Sunday and Monday, 6-9 p.m.