DALLAS – Rick Majerus left us on Dec. 1, 2012. He passed on leaving us remembering his love for food, his greater love for basketball and the greatest love for his sainted mother, who died just over a year earlier. Majerus had septuple-bypass surgery 30 years prior and his death due to heart failure also could be connected to his mother’s passing.
Majerus was beloved by many for his knowledge of and ability to teach basketball fundamentals, instruction that could allow average players and teams to succeed against superior talent. Now, nearly six years after his death, his work lives on.
Loyola Chicago advanced to the South Regional semifinals thanks to two improbable last-second shots to dispatch Miami (Fla.) of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference. Those outcomes could be attributed to divine intervention. After all, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt is the 98-year-old chaplain for the basketball team who is the Ramblers’ talisman and is the first nun with this much television time since Sally Field was flying around in the 1960s sitcom.
If Sister Jean is connecting God’s will to Loyola, the ghost of Rick Majerus is a more palpable explanation for why a No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference displayed the mental and physical toughness needed to survive and advance. Porter Moser, a Chicago kid who played at Creighton, is in his fifth season as Loyola’s coach. The Ramblers have won 30 games, breaking the school record set by the 1963 national championship team. And they’re in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1985 – also the last time the program made the bracket.
Majerus’ last coaching gig was at St. Louis University and Moser was on the staff for four seasons, the last three as associate head coach. There were no sheepskins, but for Moser it was a combined masters and doctorate program. Moser was the only associate head coach Majerus employed in his 25 seasons. Moser took the Loyola job at the urging of Majerus. He took over a proud program struggling to regain relevance.
It was a blank slate. And a blank wall in the locker room became the team’s Wall Of Culture.
“When I got the job and was writing down all these things I wanted to do philosophically, all these details from notes when I worked for Rick, I was like, ‘Let’s just put it up there so they see it every day and buy in,'” Moser told David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
Shadow – being in position as a help defender. Get out of the mud – big men winning the first three steps down the floor after a defensive rebound. Through you to the rim – defending near the basket, don’t go for jump fakes, make yourself a wall the offensive player must go through. Reach for the lights – arms straight up on defense, applying the theory of verticality. Never three in a row – creating movement on offense so there’s never a straight line between the ball, the defender and you. Give a verbal – talk, on defense and offense.
Another phrase on The Culture Wall – “give a verbal” – helped the Ramblers win their first-round game on senior Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer.
After Miami missed a free throw, Loyola rushed the ball up the floor in a scramble situation. Ingram was trailing Marques Townes who dribbled across the mid-court line and veered slightly to his left. The Hurricanes had walled up any drives.
“Coach always say yell a guy’s game,” Ingram said. “Saying hey or ay might not get his attention.”
Ingram said he yelled “Marques.” Townes said he heard “MARQUES.”
Townes heard his name over the cacophonous crowd and passed to his road roommate, whose feet were set in the mid-court logo – just where the bracket graphic is located – swished the 28-footer.
Loyola overcame Tennessee, then ranked No. 4 in adjusted defense at KenPom.com, thanks to Clayton Custer’s shooter’s touch jumper in the second round. The Volunteers’ successful season was predicated largely on a defensive intensity that contested every pass in every possession.
Loyola, which is 24th in KenPom.com in assist percentage, countered the Vols’ defense with another one of its mantras, from Page One of the Majerus playbook. Offense is spacing. Spacing is offense. The Ramblers strive to adhere to the “point five rule” – no player on offense possesses the ball for more than half a second before passing, driving or shooting. They’re the Telfon team – the ball doesn’t stick. Against Tennessee, Loyola had 17 assists on 22 field goals.
“Spacing is something that we’ve really bought into this year,” senior guard Richardson said. “Because we’ve got versatile, unselfish guys who are good shooters, we put a lot of pressure on the defense. The defense has to get out to the 3-point line, that leaves opportunities for drives. We have principles that lead to guys being in open spots being ready to shoot. We’re moving the ball, we put the defense in peril. We’re drivin’ kickin’, drivin’ kickin’, drivin’ kickin.’”
The application of those phrases comes in practice and teaching. Moser frequently quizzes the players to explain the meaning of the phrases – creating the culture. At 49, Moser is passing along what he learned from Majerus to a new generation.
“Coach Majerus had a huge impact on my life, my coaching career,” Moser said in Dallas last week. “Just being around a guy like that who thinks differently and just thinks game preparations. But there’s so many things I took from him. One, it was amazing how he taught the game.”
Moser says he often gets calls from former players who played for Majerus who will echo his teachings and comment on how they see the game differently. Moser believes that Majerus’ demand for details helped enhance how he taught the game.
“You can go to practices, clinics, and a coach will tell a kid to hard hedge a ball screen,” Moser said. “Coach Majerus would tell a kid to hard hedge a ball screen and then say, ‘All right, your toes have to be perpendicular facing the sideline. Your shoulders got to be ahead here. Your hips can’t be here.’ I mean, it’s a lot of teaching points on how specifically to teach to hedge it.”
One of Majerus’ main defensive rules was to not leave a 3-point shooter open in the corner. Majerus was convinced – and modern analytics have proven him correct – that the corner three is the highest-percentage shot from behind the arc. At the team hotel in Dallas last week, the Ramblers were watching a First Four game in Dayton. Ingram channeled a deceased coach he never met as a player buried an open corner three.
“Donte was screaming ‘That guy is coming all the way off the corner off the shooter and they hit a three,’” Moser recalled. “It’s fun to see them gain a different understanding for player the game. I coached the game differently after working for Coach Majerus.”
Somewhere in the afterlife, one hopes that Rick Majerus is seated at a table piled with his favorite food and nodding in approval.