If Jimmy Patsos' stomach is roiling at the thought of nine other Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coaches taking aim at him, the Loyola basketball coach wears his tension well.
"I'm happy to be the hunted," says a grinning Patsos, sitting on stage at a downtown charity event with a panel of famous coaches, including Gary Williams, his former boss at Maryland.
"Coach Williams taught me that," Patsos continues. "He always said, 'I'd love to have all the problems that Duke and Carolina have.'"
The concerns of a champion are new to Loyola basketball, which had floundered for the better part of two decades before Patsos took over in 2004. After seven up-and-down seasons, Patsos led Loyola to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994 in the spring. And with their three leading scorers returning, the Greyhounds are widely considered a favorite to win the MAAC again.
The turnaround might have taken longer than Patsos expected when he left Maryland to take over the moribund program. But his players, many of them from the Baltimore-Washington corridor, are out to prove last season was no anomaly.
"There might be some people out there who believe last year was a fluke," says Erik Etherly, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. "Right now, we're just like, 'All right, let's win it again, because if we win it twice in a row, no one can call it a fluke.'"
The men flanking Patsos at the benefit for the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation have been there. Williams led Maryland from the depths of the ACC to a national championship. Jay Wright took Villanova to seven straight NCAA tournaments after the program had been shut out of March Madness for five years.
"I think it's probably one of the most difficult things to do in sports is, to repeat whenever you're trying to repeat any level of success," Wright says. "Because it's human nature to be average. You want to be content. If you're a salesman and you meet your quota, you want to take a couple days off. … What Jimmy's got to do this year is probably more challenging than getting there. Getting there is fun."
Williams agrees, remembering the season-opening loss his 2001-02 team suffered against Arizona, following a Final Four run the previous spring.
"It was really hard to calm down by the start of next season," he says. "They beat us pretty easily, and so that might have been the best thing that happened to us that year. It was really a wake-up call that just because we won last year and we had those guys back, there was no guarantee. We got down to work after that, and we became a much better team."
In fact, the Terps lost only three more games and won the national title.
Though Patsos doesn't want to lose when Loyola opens its season hosting Binghamton on Friday night, he's thinking along the same lines as Williams, trying to jolt his team at every opportunity as preseason practices come to a close.
"He's gotten into us a little bit and tried to wake us up," says senior Robert Olson, the team's best outside shooter. "He can tell we're maybe not quite ready for what's coming, because we've never been in this place before. We've never been the hunted. We're used to hunting. We need to have that chip on our shoulder, and Jimmy's trying to get us ready for that."
Players say the voluble Patsos has responded to success by changing hardly at all. The chip on his shoulder is just as solid, the fire in his belly just as hot.
"Same guy man, same guy," says junior guard Dylon Cormier, Loyola's second-leading scorer. "I love him. That's one of my best friends. I can talk to him about anything."
Patsos admits he's nervous about how his team will respond. The line he's dancing is tricky. He wants his players to let go of last season's results but not the feeling they experienced of coming together behind a common purpose.
"Yes I have," he says when asked if he has urged his players to forget. "But I also don't want to sour the mood, because it's pretty good. … I'm a happy guy, so I want to keep things going that way."
Asked when they knew last season would be special, Etherly, Olson and Cormier all give different answers.
Etherly points to a team retreat a few weeks before the start of practice, where the players traded personal stories and talked about what they hoped to do as a group. "Right then and there, we all saw that we had the talent, but that brought us together as a team," he says. "We became one mind focused on what we had to do."
For Olson, the feeling came during an eight-game winning streak that followed an opening loss to Wake Forest. "We all liked each other," he says. "We were real cohesive on the court."