Cormier remembers the team's spirited first-half effort in a loss at eventual national champion Kentucky. The day before, Patsos had scrawled a "play hard" contract on a dry-erase board in Loyola's locker room. "We signed it and he said that if we buy into it, we have a chance to be MAAC champs," Cormier remembers. "And two months later, sure enough, we were MAAC champs."

Though the moments of realization were different, each player came to the same feeling: after years of building, Loyola not only had the talent to win, it had the internal trust.

The spoils — a rocking home arena, recognition around their North Baltimore campus, the joy of watching "Loyola" pop onto the screen during the NCAA tournament selection show — were lovely

Prospects for a repeat look good on paper, but the players know there's no guarantee the same spirit will reappear when they take the court this week.

Despite the returning stars, Loyola is not the same team as in 2011-12. Gone are center Shane Walker, the team's second-leading rebounder and a deft passer and shooting threat from the top of the key, and guard Justin Drummond, last year's instant offense off the bench. Six freshmen fill out Patsos' roster.

Opponents, of course, won't care about that. Once Loyola enters MAAC play, every team will want to knock off the champs. Every game, Patsos tells his players, will be like a little Super Bowl.

"Jimmy's one of those kind of people where you have to earn it every single year from him," Etherly says. "We've all put the rings away and it's time to focus on what we can be in 2012-13, not what we were in 2011-12."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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