The celebration that began last season for Loyola Chicago with its second Final Four trip in school history — 55 years after the first — went on for months.
There were pep rallies on the school’s campus after the Ramblers reached the Sweet 16 and then beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight to earn a trip to San Antonio for college basketball’s premier event.
There was Opening Day at Wrigley Field, where one of last year’s heroes — Ben Richardson — threw out the first pitch and others, including coach Porter Moser, sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.
And there was a banner-raising ceremony inside cozy Gentile Arena for the season opener, where Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the team’s 99-year-old good luck charm, was presented with a Final Four ring.
But as with many unexpected and prolonged celebrations, there has been a hangover of sorts.
When the Ramblers arrive at Royal Farms Arena to play No. 23 Maryland on Saturday at 4 p.m. in the second game of the Charm City College Classic, they will do so with a 5-4 record, including losses in three of their past four games.
“We haven’t said the reason we have some losses is that we have a bull’s eye on our back,” Moser said Friday after a practice at Johns Hopkins. “We’re not using that as an excuse.
“It’s true. You see people [fans and players on other teams] are fired up,. You can hear the comments that they make and the effort we see. We weren’t great at the beginning of the year last year. It’s just a process of getting better with what we do defensively.”
Redshirt senior guard Clayton Custer has also noticed a difference.
“You try to focus on the game plan and try to execute, but a few of the games we lost, the other team got really, really excited and they really celebrate and seem happy that they beat a team that went to the Final Four,” Custer said Friday.
On top of that, Moser said Custer and Marques Townes, the team’s other redshirt senior leader, are trying to carry too much of the load.
“One thing we did last year, we had seven or eight guys who were really good,” Moser said. “It was different guys different nights, and we kind of shared the burden.”
The Ramblers lost two starters, Richardson and Donte Ingram, and sixth man Aundre Jackson, from last year’s team that finished 32-6 overall and won 21 of 22 games before losing to Michigan in the national semifinals.
Sophomore guard Lucas Williamson, who was expected to take over for Richardson, and junior guard Bruno Skokna are both out with injuries. The Ramblers are currently starting two true freshmen, guards Isaiah Bujdoso and Cooper Kaifes.
Moser also points to a bulked-up schedule as part of the team’s slow start.
Before Wednesday’s 75-69 home defeat to Ball State, the three other teams Loyola lost to entered Friday with a combined record of 23-2. Two of them — early-season surprise Furman and No. 6 Nevada — remain unbeaten.
“Every team we’re playing, we’re in a gauntlet and now we’re playing Maryland and we’ve still got to go to the Palestra to play [Saint Joseph’s],” Moser said. “It’s fair to say that there’s so much noise on the outside coming in.
“Everywhere we go, the media, the comparisons to last year. That’s just a real part of it. I wanted the program to be relevant, so I’m not [complaining]. I want to get better and we’re not as good as we need to be right now.”
Moser prepared for the added attention and pressure this season by visiting with a former coaching rival, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, during the NBA preseason to talk about how to prepare a team a year after unexpectedly going to the Final Four.
Stevens took Butler to back-to-back Final Fours — reaching the championship game both years. The Bulldogs lost to top-seeded Duke in the 2010 final when Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt shot nearly banked in at the buzzer, then lost to No. 3 seed Connecticut the following year.
“[Former Butler star] Matt Howard happened to be there and I talking to them, asking them, ‘How was that year after you went the first time?’ ” Moser said. “They talked about the intense pressure, the noise from the outside looking in.”
When Howard reminded him Butler started the year after the first Final Four with a 4-4 record — and at one point were only 14-9 — Moser took Townes and Custer out to lunch one day and told them about Butler’s experience.
“I told them, ‘Let’s have fun with this. It’s not on all your shoulders,’ ” Moser said. “We’re aware of it. We’re not playing nearly as well as we can, but that’s part of it. We’ve played some really good teams and we’ll grow from it.”
Said Custer: “It definitely resonated with us. We learned that we’ve just got to trust the process, and not look into it too much that we’ve lost a couple of games early in the season. We’ve just got to stay confident and keep working and try to jell as a team.”
Notes: Local rivals Towson and Morgan State will play in the first game of the Charm City College Classic, beginning at 1:15 p.m. … Moser and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon are familiar with each other, from when Moser coached at Illinois State and Turgeon was at Wichita State. Over a four-year stretch, Turgeon’s teams won seven of eight games. … On playing in the hometown of starters and former Mount Saint Joseph stars Jalen Smith and Darryl Morsell, Turgeon texted, “We really look forward to playing in Baltimore tomorrow. It’s an amazing opportunity for our program to play in front of our fans from the area. It will be even more special for Darryl and Jalen to get back home and play in front of their friends and family. I know they’ve been looking forward to this game since the summer. Loyola Chicago was a Final Four team last season and I think it’s going to be an entertaining matchup for the crowd.”