Loyola men jelling as they open defense of national championship
NEW ORLEANS – The Loyola men’s basketball team has dealt with a lot of change in the last year.
After winning the NAIA national championship at the end of last March, they saw head coach Stacy Hollowell leave for an assistant’s job at Ole Miss in May and watched three top players with remaining eligibility leave for other NCAA opportunities.
After hiring Donald Reyes to replace Hollowell, revamping the roster and enduring a series of injuring during the regular season the Wolf Pack are in a position a lot like the one they were in at this time a year ago.
After repeating as SSAC regular-season and tournament champions they are a No. 3 seed as they prepare to host first- and second-round games in the NAIA Tournament on Tuesday and Wednesday.
They will play 14th-seeded SAGU (Southwestern Assemblies of God University) at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in The Den. That game will be followed by a first-round game between the fourth-seeded Loyola women and No. 13 John Brown.
“The opportunity to go back to back in both the regular season and the conference tournament, that’s difficult in any league in any division,” senior forward Jalen Galloway said after practice Monday morning. “Things are really starting to fall into place at the right time.”
Reyes, a former John Ehret High School player who was an assistant coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi when Loyola hired him last June, said “we’ve finally had our whole group” since only February 11.
Since then the Wolf Pack (24-6, 16-4) won two of their last three regular-season games.
“Once we became whole it took us some time to still jell because it’s difficult when you still have new pieces coming in,” said senior guard Michael Harden a native of Lafayette and transfer from Southern who was named the SSAc Newcomer of the year. “It just took some adjusting, but I think ultimately it made us a better team.”
Loyola swept through the conference tournament with victories by 15, seven and nine points February 23-25.
“I feel like we hit another level in the conference tournament,” Reyes said.
Galloway, a first-team all-SSAC player this season, is one of three current players that were rotation players last season. He leads the team in scoring (17.9), and the other two primary returning players – Milan Mejia (10.9) and Zach Muller (7.7) – and the fourth- and fifth-leading scorers respectively.
When Reyes, the SSAC Coach of the Year, arrived, he wasn’t sure where that scoring was going to come from because barely 10 of the 88 points that Loyola averaged last season were scored by players who stuck around.
The coach had a late start in recruiting but he said he was confident that he could still find what he needed.
“COVID changed everything,” Reyes said in reference to the extra years of eligibility that players were granted because of COVID’s disruption from 2020-22. In addition, “the transfer portal is unbelievable.”
Harden and guard Matthew Mondesir, a graduate transfer from Bethune-Cookman, were both searching for better playing opportunities for the 2022-23 season.
Late last season Harden’s only knowledge of Loyola was as the university that his sister attended. “I had never heard about their basketball program,” he said.
Last February 12 he attended a Tulane game against Temple inside Devlin Fieldhouse.
A friend of Harden’s that had played for Loyola urged him to “come check us out.”
So after the Green Wave’s 92-83 victory, Harden walked across Freret Street to the Den to catch the second half of the Wolf Pack’s game against Talladega.
When Harden walked in he saw a familiar face serving as an assistant coach on the Loyola bench.
“I was like, ‘that’s Javan Felix,’” Harden recalled. “That was pretty cool to see.”
Harden had been “a fan” of Felix’s “since I was a little kid.”
The youngster had watched Felix help lead St. Augustine to a Class 5A state championship before going on to have a solid career at Texas and play professionally in the G League and Croatia.
Harden was impressed as he watched the Wolf Pack win 90-82 in overtime to take sole possession of first place in the SSAC.
“I saw the level they played at,” Harden said, “and even though it’s NAIA ball it was a high level.”
Harden had to wait until June – after Reyes was hired – to receive a scholarship offer from Loyola. But once an offer came, the decision to accept “was a no-brainer.”
Meanwhile Mondesir, who crossed paths with Reyes “for about a year” when Reyes was an assistant at Bethune-Cookman, “didn’t play at all” last season.
He was planning to join Reyes at Texas A&M-CC but Loyola’s national championship was “a big eye opener for me.”
Then Hollowell left, Reyes came to Loyola and Mondesir followed him to his new home.
“It looked like a good opportunity to go to a winning team,” Mondesir said. “They already had winning players and a winning mindset.”
Loyola also represented a great opportunity for Reyes, who had spent “about two months” in the summer of 2012 sharing an office with Hollowell as both served as assistants under Mike Giorlando.
But then Tulane coach Ed Conroy offered Reyes an opportunity “I couldn’t pass up” and Reyes worked under Conroy for four seasons and Mike Dunleavy Sr. for three before going to Bethune-Cookman.
Now he’s back with the Wolf Pack. After accepting the job he quickly moved to retain Felix and added Andrew Fava, a starter on last year’s team who has two Masters degrees from Loyola, to his staff.
When Reyes convened the team August 26 he tried to walk a tightrope between acknowledging the championship that some team members helped win and recognizing that this was a new group
“All those guys that returned no matter how much or little they played, they were a part of something special,” Reyes said. “I would never, ever discredit that.
“(But) we haven’t accomplished anything. (Let’s) show the world that it wasn’t just those guys. It was the culture. It was the makeup of who we are on a day-to-day basis. We focused on that. We focused on jelling.”
Galloway acknowledged that early in the season “there were a lot of egos floating around,” but over time “we have kind of pushed those egos aside.”
Reyes kept telling the players that the goal was to be “good now, great later.”
Now it’s later.
“As of the last few weeks we’ve been playing some really, really great basketball,” Reyes said. “If we can just consistently do that and be ourselves we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to do what they did last year.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…