Loyola is back to its winning ways — with ‘a new vibe’ from some new players — after a dismal 1st season in the Atlantic 10

Loyola guard Des Watson hyped up the home crowd at Gentile Arena as he checked out of Sunday’s game against Davidson with a little more than five minutes to play.

Watson and the Ramblers were up 12 on his former team and would remain in control for a 76-63 victory — their fifth in six games — to improve to 7-2 in the Atlantic 10 and 15-7 overall.

After a slow start in which he missed his first three shots, Watson commanded the offense in the second half along with point guard Braden Norris. The 6-foot-5 junior finished with 18 points, six assists and five rebounds, and Norris added 14 points and three assists.

Talkative all game, Watson looked to the Davidson bench after a couple of 3-pointers.

“Coming in with these guys every day is just so fun, so energetic,” said Watson, who’s averaging a team-high 13.2 points. “We love each other so much. We do anything on the court for each other. It’s more like a trust thing and a culture thing.”

The Ramblers are enjoying a resurgence after their first season in the Atlantic 10 saw them fall from a perennial Missouri Valley Conference power to a struggling, last-place team. They went 10-21 overall in 2022-23, including a dismal 4-14 conference record.

“Last year was, basketball-wise, one of the hardest of my life,” said Norris, a sixth-year graduate student who was a key starter on Loyola’s 2021 Sweet 16 and 2022 NCAA Tournament teams. “It was rough. There were some down times.”

The move up in competition seemed to be a bit too much for Loyola and coach Drew Valentine, who was in his second season in the role after Porter Moser’s departure.

“I love the Valley, so it’s no disrespect to those programs,” Valentine said, “but the level of talent in the A-10 on every team is incredibly high. … It’s such a good step up. I think our resources improved.”

He placed some of the blame for the disappointing transition season on himself.

“I did a poor job last year just thinking our culture is going to solve every issue that we had,” Valentine said. “Even if we were winning like my first year, I probably would have said, ‘Yeah we’ve got to keep pushing.’ It’s nice to be winning again of course, but we’re still third place in the league so we want to continue to chase a championship.”

Valentine said transfers Watson, Greg Dolan (Cornell) and Patrick Mwamba (Oral Roberts) brought the same mindset that works within the team’s culture: All three, he said, “want to win more than individual success.”

The Ramblers also have gotten a boost, especially on defense, from freshman center Miles Rubin of Simeon. He had four rebounds, three blocked shots and a steal against Davidson and leads the team with 4.9 rebounds per game while ranking 11th in the country with 2.36 blocks per game.

Rubin credits his positive contributions so early in his college career to Simeon coach Tim Flowers. He said Flowers taught him to “just keep playing, even if it doesn’t go your way. Just impact the game in a different way, like blocks or defending.”

Forward Phillip Alston, in his second season at Loyola after transferring from Division II California (Pa.), added three rebounds and a steal against Davidson as the Ramblers continued to apply pressure in the second half. They held the Wildcats to 39.3% shooting from the field and 26.1% beyond the 3-point arc.

Alston agrees with Valentine that Loyola’s success is tied to the culture. It was his reason for joining the team in 2022 as well.

“It was probably one of the best decisions that I’ve made, deciding to transfer here,” he said. “Just being in love with the culture that we have and the connectivity the team has. It’s just an amazing feeling.”

That culture — “a brotherhood,” Rubin called it — leads to chemistry on the court because they’re “just having fun.”

The new players have re-energized Norris, who has been with the Ramblers since the Moser days.

“This game’s been great to me, especially here,” he said. “We’ve won a lot of championships and a lot of big games. And to be back to that standard, it’s a great feeling for me.

“Now the new guys that came in … they just brought a new vibe. It’s so refreshing for me to be back around a bunch of guys and you know that’s the only thing they want to do.”

The Ramblers have two tough road games ahead Wednesday at George Mason (15-7, 4-5) and Saturday at George Washington (14-7, 3-5). They aren’t overlooking any of their opponents, but they’re excited for the possibilities that remain.

“We’re not a surprise to anybody anymore,” Alston said. “We’re legit. And we’re ready to win this conference.”