What’s spurring Loyola’s turnaround season? For coach Drew Valentine, it’s staying ‘process-driven’ and focused on day-to-day growth.

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The heart of any team is reflected not only in its players, but also in its coach’s passion, commitment and intentional alignment of its culture.

When Drew Valentine took over as men’s basketball coach at Loyola in 2021, the Ramblers were riding high as kings of the Missouri Valley Conference with three regular-season conference titles, two MVC Tournament championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances — including the 2018 Final Four run — in the previous four years.

Valentine had been an assistant on Porter Moser’s staff, and his plan was to continue the winning culture Moser had started. In his first year, he did it. The Ramblers went 25-8 and won the 2022 MVC Tournament before losing to Ohio State 54-41 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

But in his second season at the helm, with key players Lucas Williamson, Aher Uguak and Keith Clemons having moved on and Loyola having joined the Atlantic 10, Valentine experienced the first losing season of his life. The Ramblers went 10-21 and finished last in the conference at 4-14.

“It was an eerie feeling for me last year,” Valentine told the Tribune. “I’ve been in college basketball now for 14 seasons. And up until last year, I’d only not won 20 games in a season one time. So losing 20 games was crazy for me.

“All of last year I looked at it as an opportunity to grow and to really figure out what works for me, have a really good understanding of what works with our team, our structure and our program.”

This was Monday, three days after the Ramblers beat then-No. 21 Dayton. Valentine was his usual calm self. It was clear he wasn’t celebrating or looking too far ahead but was simply focused on the task at hand — winning a conference title. The Ramblers (22-8, 14-3) sit in second place behind Richmond (23-7, 15-2) ahead of Saturday’s final regular-season game against La Salle at Gentile Arena.

Valentine shared that he approached last spring as an opportunity because, unlike in the NBA, he doesn’t have an offseason with a free-agency period. So when the disappointing season ended, he went right to work researching potential transfers to make sure the Ramblers had everything they needed to rebound.

“Literally the day that we lost (in last year’s Atlantic 10 Tournament), I felt like a 40-pound weight got lifted off of my chest,” he said. “I just knew what we needed to do because going through what we went through last year, it was simple for me … what we were looking for and the changes we needed to make to get back to doing this.

“I thought we did a good job this offseason making the changes that were going to fit me and our program.”

In May 2023, Loyola announced the signing of transfers Dame Adelekun, Greg Dolan, Patrick Mwamba and Des Watson. Three of the four were graduate transfers; Adelekun (Dartmouth) and Dolan (Cornell) were Ivy League players who couldn’t use their extra “COVID year” at their schools. Valentine watched tape of their games in his office to get a head start on recruiting.

While some coaches across college sports have complaints about the transfer portal, Valentine said he’s trying to use it to his advantage while noting it has its downside.

“We’ve been fortunate here that our best players haven’t left,” he said. “A lot of coaches hate it because their players are getting poached. And I feel the same way. I know my players Des Watson, Jayden Dawson and Miles Rubin have talked to me about people reaching out to their high school coaches and AAU coaches and even directly to them.”

But Valentine didn’t just change his roster in the offseason.

He thought about what changes he needed to make as a coach and what he learned in the transition from assistant to head coach. He said he had to consider the mindset of the players, their backgrounds, their “winning DNA” and how they practice every day.

In addition, Valentine had to figure out his coaching philosophy for himself.

“I’m a guy who really believes in a process-driven program,” he explained. “I’m not just results-based. All that stuff really matters to me.

“Finding people like a Braden Norris that might only average nine points a game, but to me he’s a superstar with the way that he conducts his everyday business. That’s what’s been successful here. That’s where to work. That’s why, when I got here, I loved it here because of the way that Coach Moser built the culture.”

In his time as head coach, Valentine said he has found that “I just love people — they give me energy.” That includes talks with other coaches: Moser (now at Oklahoma), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Southern Illinois’ Bryan Mullins, South Florida’s Amir Abdur-Rahim, Marquette’s Shaka Smart and Michigan assistant Saddi Washington.

Not only do they share insight into coaching, but they are his friends and mentors. Less than three years into his position, Valentine, 32, acknowledges he has a lot to learn and a ways to go in his journey to get where he wants.

The Ramblers’ turnaround this season has many speculating about how much longer Valentine will remain in Rogers Park and whether he would succeed Izzo, 69, at Michigan State.

“In college basketball, the reality of what happens is there’s only two scenarios and I’ve had both of these this year,” Valentine said. “You’re either about to get fired or you’re about to go somewhere else. Even if you’re the best … like Dan Hurley right now at UConn. All the talk with him is he’s going to the NBA. It doesn’t stop unless you’re like 65 and you’ve been at a job for 20 years.

“Earlier this year when we were losing, everybody thought that I was toast. But now I’m (supposedly) going to get this job and you can’t pay attention to that. It’s flattering, but I’ve proven I’m never going to chase money. When I was an assistant I had multiple Power Five offers but I opted to stay here because I like my life, the city and what we’ve built and are continuing to build.”

During any Loyola game, Valentine can be seen standing on the sideline showing the same emotion as his team. He fist-pumps, bangs his hands on the court and hypes up the crowd.

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“Coach says, ‘Put yourself in the game and let the game come to you,’” guard Philip Alston said after the Ramblers’ 64-59 victory over St. Joseph’s on Feb. 14. “He has that energy 24/7. He never falters.”

The players and fans believe in Valentine and what he’s building at Loyola. They even repeat his phrase “committed to the culture” when asked what drives the success there.

As our time came to an end, I asked Valentine what his mindset is now as the end of the regular season approaches and his team is in a different position than last year. He paused to think. His eyes went to the window as he stroked his chin, searching for the right words.

“We can still get better and grow, like the way we got better from Tuesday to Friday,” he finally said after a few moments of silence. “Why can’t we get better from Saturday or Sunday to Tuesday before we play on Wednesday? And then after that, let’s get better again.

“Our mindset is we’re chasing championships and that we’ve got to handle our business. It’s exciting to be in a hunt for a championship and living with that emotion, urgency and importance of having an opportunity to do that. Not taking your foot off the gas pedal there — and then also not taking your foot off the gas pedal as far as the growth that can happen individually from our players, me as a coach and then as a team.”