When Brian Ellerbe was introduced as Loyola's new head men's basketball coach in April, the school was still celebrating the team's stunning turnaround. In one year, the Greyhounds went from a 2-25 joke to a team that electrified the campus by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament to qualify for its first NCAA tournament.
Ellerbe knows all about high expectations, having spent the previous four years as a top assistant at Virginia. And his message to Loyola's fans is blunt: Don't expect another miracle.
"I'm basically coaching the same team that went 2-25. That's the sad truth," Ellerbe said. "What we want to do is set the tone for how we want the program to be run. We want to continue to recruit hard, and we never want to get complacent."
The Greyhounds cannot afford to get complacent, not after losing two players that basically dragged them to the NCAAs. Guard Tracy Bergan and forward Michael Reese are gone, and with them nearly 50 percent of Loyola's offense. Reese also was the team's top rebounder.
Ellerbe has quite a challenge. Among the team's probable starters -- and Ellerbe has yet to settle on a rotation -- no one is taller than 6 feet 7. And few of the Greyhounds who figure to garner the bigger shares of playing time break the 200-pound mark. Such a lack of height and bulk could mean plenty of trouble around the boards, where Loyola will encounter numerous stronger teams in the MAAC.
The lack of size and experience in the paint puts more pressure on senior power forward B.J. Pendleton. Although he often performed in the shadows of Reese and Bergan last season, Pendleton was a model of consistency. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, and became the first Loyola player in nearly 20 years to record 1,000 career points and 500 career rebounds.
"Is this going to be B.J.'s team? I don't know. I don't know if he wants it to be," Ellerbe said. "We don't have a leader yet."
If Pendleton doesn't get sufficient help from 6-7, 249-pound senior David Credle, the Greyhounds could struggle inside. Credle, whose weight has limited his playing time in the past, averaged 5.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in 15 minutes per game last season.
The development of sophomore forward Julian Tate is also crucial to Loyola's success. At 6-6, 200 pounds, Tate is a "classic tweener" to Ellerbe. He's too lean to be a consistent force inside, and his outside shot is too shaky for the perimeter.
The backcourt poses more questions Sophomore guards Darius Johnson and Milton Williams had their moments last season. Johnson was the team's fourth-leading scorer (10.4 ppg), and he hit numerous clutch shots last season, including the game-winner against Manhattan in the MAAC title game. Williams (4.1 ppg) started slowly, particularly with his shooting, then played well down the stretch. Juniors Teron Owens and Matt Walker and senior Matt Gabriel are capable backups.
"Darius Johnson is an enigma to me right now," Ellerbe said. "I want him to be a catalyst. Quite frankly, right now, he's not."
Ultimately, the Greyhounds' fortunes probably will boil down to how quickly 5-11 freshman point guard John McDonald adapts to the college game. He had a brilliant run at Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High School, and Ellerbe likes his feel for the game. "John has been the most consistent player for us so far," Ellerbe said. "He's going to get thrown in the fire, and I know how he feels. I got in the fourth game of my freshman year at Rutgers and never came out. I averaged 38 minutes over the rest of my career. He's probably headed that way."
Ellerbe could be headed for a stressful rookie season. He is a stickler for the grinding, half-court game, but he is worried that the Greyhounds don't have the size and quickness to play that style.
"We're small, unathletic, not very quick and not real deep. We're going to have trouble scoring. That's why our defense better be good," he said. "We don't have a lot of guys with skills. We have guys who play hard.
"It's a new year, and I'm trying to be realistic."