The REAL Secrets To Loyola Chicago's Cinderella Final Four Run! (Not What You Think)

Loyola Chicago can shoot it and pass it. And their defense is really good. They're unselfish. And there are no egos. No secrets there!

But I believe the keys to their success started years ago. How do I know?

I was lucky enough to coach two of their best players for a season in high school. Clayton Custer was the Missouri Valley Conference MVP and honorable mention All-American. Ben Richardson won Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference.

I had no idea they'd ever make a Final Four, but I did know they'd do some great things in their life.

Here's why...

1 - Outwork everybody! Even get shots up after a 3 hour and 45 minute practice?!

Here is what happened at our very first practice.

Prior to the practice, these two were in the gym right away working on their shot 15 minutes before practice. Then we had a 3 hour practice. Then we had a 30 minute lifting session.

This is the part that really starts to separate great players from the rest of the pack...

Even after a 3 hour and 45 minute practice, they were back in the gym after all of that practicing their shooting. You had to make them leave the gym.

This was great. However, I wondered how long this would last.

To my surprise, it never stopped. They did this from the first practice to the last practice.

One of the first ones there and one of the last ones to leave.

I threw so many passes to them after practice during the season, that I had to perfect a softball-like underhand pass, so I didn't wear out my shoulders.

Not much of a secret. Hard work is a must to maximize your potential.

However, hard work alone isn't enough...

2- They practiced simple drills extraordinarily hard. They didn't do circus drills.

That season I worked with the guards. There was nothing special about the drills that we did.

To a novice, these simple drills might even appear boring.

However, those of us who have been around really good players know something different. These are the same drills that the great ones obsess over to master and elevate their skill level. There is nothing flashy about developing greatness! And that's what these players did.

Clayton even told me that he preferred not to do two ball or tennis ball drills... you know the typical stuff you see on YouTube. He said he didn't see the value compared to other drills.

Another aspect that separated Ben and Clayton was this. They attacked the simple drills. And they performed EACH repetition like their life depended on it.

I would tell them to do a simple drill like... cut to the wing, take one dribble, and pull up for a jumper.

After they became proficient in the skill. You didn't have to tell them to get outside their comfort zone. They would immediately amp it up another level.

They would lose the ball. They would travel. They would make mistakes. But that's how you improve.

You push outside your limits. You make mistakes. You rep the heck out of it. You adapt and improve. Then you master the simple skill at a higher level.

Here are some examples of mastering the basics then amping up the same drill...

  • On a cut to the wing, you fake harder and change directions faster.

    If it took you 2.4 seconds to cut to the wing. You amp things up and try to get there in 2.2 seconds.

  • Rather than running at 10 mph into a jump shot, you can run at 13 mph into a jump shot. Now you can cover more distance faster and create more space from the defender.

  • You practice stopping quicker and more efficiently and pivoting or hopping faster to face the basket. This faster shot preparation leads to more open shots! You go from only needing six feet of space to get off your shot to needing four feet of space to get off your shot.

  • Now rather than taking 1.2 seconds to pull up off the dribble, you only need 0.8 seconds.

  • Now rather than getting to the basket in three dribbles from half court, you can do it in two dribbles.

No special drills! Just amping up the intensity and performing each skill better each and every day!

And those little incremental improvements over years of practice are what make great players. That's precisely what these players did!

Also, if you watch the games, you would know these two players are leaders of the team and their teammates respect them. In addition to the reasons above, here is another reason why...

3 - They were very coachable and great teammates!

Why should they respect me? I was some Joe Shmoe from Iowa who never attempted to play college basketball. I was an all conference player and won some shooting contests, but they were probably better as freshmen than I ever was.

However, from day one, they were very respectful to everybody on the coaching staff, every staff member in the school, and everybody on the team.

They listened to what the coaches said and what the coaches asked. And if they had a different thought on something, they knew to ask more detailed questions outside of practice. Even if they disagreed, they knew to never undermine the coach. Maybe they understood intuitively, even if the coach was wrong, it's better to have 10 players united doing the "wrong thing" than 10 players divided doing the right and wrong thing.

They looked you in the eye when you spoke.

You asked them to sprint to the next drill. They sprint.

You asked them to focus during a warm up. They led the way.

You didn't have to tell them to work hard in practice.

Even though they were talented, they weren't jerks to their teammates. They were supportive. They showed players how to practice. They spoke to each and every teammate with respect if they needed to help them with something. And they always raised the intensity level of practice.

They didn't care about stats. They cared about winning. That's probably why they played in four state championship games and won two of them.

If they were sitting on the bench, they were the loudest ones on the bench. They were the first ones to congratulate their teammates.

And you can see the same thing now. You can see their teammates looking to them as leaders.

They set the standard and that's why you saw Loyola Chicago in the Final Four!

That's why you see these guys stepping up and hitting big shots.

Leadership isn't given. Leadership is earned!

Nailing game winning shots in the NCAA tournament is earned!

If you just take these simple lessons and apply them... work harder than everybody else, do the simple things extraordinarily well, and just be a damn good person... you might not reach a Final Four, but you will maximize your potential! You will do great things!

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


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Ramiro Paz says:
3/28/2018 at 5:26:44 PM

This is not a b. ball lesson it is a life lesson, I just want to say Thanks, and my hope is that more and more people get toched by the good things of life like B. Ball.
I pray to every coach understand that they can touch the heart and life of our kids



Pres says:
3/28/2018 at 12:30:44 PM



Nancy Haefner says:
3/28/2018 at 11:37:03 AM

Good article. Good reply to comments.
Proud Mama


Nico says:
3/28/2018 at 8:36:52 AM

Cool! Loved it


Steve says:
3/27/2018 at 9:43:32 PM

As a coach of a junior team I love reading this as I see it with my best players aswell.. great read!


Coach says:
3/27/2018 at 9:28:52 PM

What do you think are examples of good fundamental drills? I always hear that players should focus more on "fundamentals" during the off season rather than playing games. Do you think players should do more small sided games - 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4, etc or do you have some specific drills?

When I search for fundamentals I get examples of what you listed "circus drills" 2 balls, tennis balls, etc. Everyone wants to be innovative, sound smart and make a buck. I've enjoyed Loyal Chicago's run as I'm a coach in Kansas and value their hard work. Thanks for your thoughts

  1 reply  

Jeff Haefner says:
3/28/2018 at 8:10:33 AM

What are examples of good fundamental drills? I know what you're saying. That is a great question! I think an even better question is:

"What are good fundamentals?"

Because most drills can serve many purposes. For example, take the most basic lay up drill. You start at the wing, take 1-3 dribbles, and then make a lay up. Every coach in the world has seen this drill. What is the purpose of the drill? Well it depends on what you want the purpose to be...

- You could start the drill with perimeter footwork (lift fake and sweep step) and emphasize explosive first step... getting there in as few dribbles as possible.
- You could emphasize dribbling with eyes up.
- You could add obstacles and force them to make 1 or 2 change of direction moves... working on 1v1 moves while also getting eyes up.
- You could work on the basics -- taking two steps, jump off inside foot, and shooting with outside hand without traveling (the most basic footwork and lay up skills).
- You could work on 2 foot jump stops with shoulder finishes (hook shots) to practice finishing over a bigger help defender.
- You could add defenders to contest shots.
- You could keep track of makes and only count the basket if they get eyes on target (to teach players to get their eyes on the target).
- You could work on reverse lay ups, floaters, or advanced finishing moves.
- You could back up to half court and work on speed dribbling and then finishing fast break (high speed) shot.

So there is one drill. But depending on what you as a coach define as the "purpose" of the drill and what you want to get out of it, the drill can give you 25 or more different fundamental skills.

That is why I think the better question is "what are good fundamentals?". Once you have a list of those fundamentals... you can find drills and/or tweak existing drills to work on those fundamental skills.

Here's a list of some of the basic fundamental skills:

But if you take each high level skill (ex: dribbling) there can be lots of details than go into it. For dribbling and developing PG dribbling skills you want some of the following fundamentals:
- dribbling with left and right hand in any situation with eyes up
- developing a feel, control, and confidence with the ball
- retreat dribble to create space or get out of bad spots (traps, sideline, etc)
- 1v1 dribble moves (change of direction move and fake change of direction moves). And the details of each move... footwork, change of speed, acceleration, selling the move, countering.
- changing speeds to keep defenders off balance
- decision making (knowing when to cross over, retreat dribble, getting into space, using the dribble with purpose, etc). This is where the 1v1, 2v2, etc competitive drills come into play.
- speed dribbling
- control dribble and protecting the ball under pressure

So if you go back to the 2-ball dribbling drills. Or the circus drills. Sometimes I use those goofy drills for this purpose:
1) I want to avoid boredom and just change things up... keep things interesting for my players and/or challenge them.
2) I want them to get warmed up at beginning of practice.
3) I want them to spend a few minutes working on their feel and control of the ball... get lots of touches in short amount of time.
4) I want them to develop hand speed, strength, and get comfortable dribbling with eyes up by pounding two basketballs as hard as they can!

So even though we're not getting much from those circus dribbling drills in regards to fundamental dribbling skills like 1v1 cross over moves or what happens in a game.... I do have a purpose for the drill and we get a few basic fundamentals accomplished. We just only run those drills for a couple minutes and make sure we find other ways to work on the rest of the fundamentals of dribbling. The next drill might be more game like.

This is why as a coach I think it's really important to know what you want to accomplish instead of having a list of drills.

I think have your own list of fundamental skills to work on is the first step. And then learning as much as you can about player development and fundamentals.

You asked " Do you think players should do more small sided games - 1 on 1, 2 on 2, 3 on 3, 4 on 4, etc or do you have some specific drills?"

Yes! Most definitely. I think competitive drills (whether they are small sided games or 5v5) have purpose and they are an important piece of the development process. Block and random drills are important too... they serve certain purposes. But the competitive drills where you have defenders with a variety of rules and constraints -- 1v1, 1v2, 2v1, 2v2, 3v3, etc, etc. These are the best at simulating what actually happens in a game. This is just another piece of the puzzle in player development and key ingredient regarding drills you want to use.

Here are a couple articles that explains block, random, and competitive game based drills:

Again I think the key is understanding "what are fundamental skills" and then you can figure out how to develop those skills.

Personally, as a coach, I have made it a priority to learn everything I can about fundamentals and player development. I think that is most important thing (defense is #2 for me). I try to learn as much as possible -- I get every DVD, video, article, etc I can about the subject. I pick up things from all over the place and each day improve my understanding of player development. To me that is most important thing to learn about.

Player development is big subject that takes time to learn about. So you just start with one area and/or resource. Study one thing at a time. When you're done, move on to the next thing. There are ways to speed up the process a bit. But even when you do, it's still a long term process that takes time.

If you want suggestions or pointed towards good player development resources, let us know. Or have other questions, let us know.

  1 reply  

Coach says:
3/28/2018 at 10:02:03 PM

Thanks for the great reply Jeff. This definitely makes me think about the skills I want accomplished over finding magic drills. I do admit I do some 2 ball dribbling stuff as well to build confidence.


Mike says:
3/27/2018 at 9:02:23 PM

Great article!!! A must read for all youth.


Newt says:
3/27/2018 at 8:43:27 PM

Thanks. Great stuff.


Mark says:
3/27/2018 at 6:19:44 PM

I have watched Loyola play in the tournament...and have not seen a more fundamental team. From passing, dribbling to rebounding and defense. How many college teams ball fake or shot fake? Seem to be lost arts. Love watching the "team" concept at its finest!! And to Sister Jean...prayer does work!


Chick Lillis says:
3/27/2018 at 6:14:53 PM

Being from Chicago, I'm so excited about Loyola getting to the Final Four !!! I'm also excited about working at Breakthrough Basketball Camps. Getting to work with young players and hoping to make a difference in how they practice their skills. So we can see how good players can become with the right work ethic and training.


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