First things first: Bennie Seltzer didn’t stick around long enough to experience Loyola-Chicago’s improbable run to the Final Four, but you won’t get him to confess to wishing he was with the Ramblers this weekend in San Antonio.
Or scouting the Michigan Wolverines with Porter Moser and the Loyola assistants he used to call colleagues.
Or taking part in pregame prayers with the country’s most popular nun.
Seltzer was one career move from experiencing all of that, but as college basketball’s best story continues to pull at the nation’s heartstrings, the 47-year-old Washington State assistant coach isn’t spending too much time this week thinking about the “what ifs.”
“Absolutely not. Zero,” Seltzer said Wednesday. “Everybody receives their blessings and there’s no question that this team is blessed and it’s their time. I’m here at my alma mater, man, there’s no other place in the world I would rather be than here at Washington State. That may sound a little crazy, but this is what I prayed for.”
But Seltzer also can’t talk about the program that employed him from 2015-17 without wearing a big grin. He won’t be on the Ramblers bench when they tip off Saturday inside the Alamodome, but he was there for the prologue to this captivating story. He saw the making of a Cinderella.
Moser, the Loyola coach whose name will be linked to every major coaching vacancy in the country when this run is over, hired Seltzer as an assistant on Aug. 27, 2015.
Seltzer had been on the Lake Shore campus for less than a week – perhaps hadn’t even been through a single practice with the Ramblers – when he was invited to celebrate the birthday of a university employee. The chaplain of Loyola’s basketball program was turning 96.
“A couple of days after I got there, I went to her birthday party,” Seltzer said. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, she’s 96.’ ”
Seltzer also cut cake with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt a year later when she turned 97.
Since then, the hoops chaplain-turned-celebrity nun has achieved a level of fame no player or coach in the NCAA Tournament can match.
Photos and videos of Sister Jean have transformed into popular internet memes, her likeness has been used to create a bestselling bobblehead and on Friday, some 24 hours before the Ramblers play the Wolverines in the Final Four, more than 100 credentialed media members attended her press conference.
Sister Jean travels by wheelchair these days, but only a year ago, Seltzer used to watch – and usually in awe – the 97-year-old traverse the Loyola campus by foot.
“I would see her walk to work, whether it’s 65 degrees and the sun’s shining or it’s 25 degrees,” he said. “She’d walk to work every day.”
And Seltzer can vouch for her basketball acumen.
“She’s not looking over Porter’s shoulder and making sure he’s doing everything right, but she’s at every single game,” he said. “She sends out a blanket email first telling everybody how the game went, how they did and all that stuff. But she’ll send each one of our guys individual emails. So she knows what she’s talking about, man.”
In his two seasons, Seltzer either helped recruit or develop almost every member of the Loyola roster. He was the “point man” when the Ramblers recruited freshman guard Christian Negron and had an important role in bringing starting center Cameron Krutwig (10.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and reserve guard Lucas Williamson (4.9 ppg) to campus.
Clayton Custer, the redshirt junior guard and unlikely hero for Loyola in this tournament, was sitting out after transferring from Iowa State when Seltzer joined the Ramblers. Before Custer introduced himself to America with a buzzer-beating shot to upset Tennessee in the Round of 32, Seltzer saw him work tirelessly to hone his craft inside the school’s practice gym.
“Clay is a tough kid. Clay’s a kid that works on his game. Clay’s a good kid,” Seltzer said. “You just look at him and he looks like this innocent kid, but Clay, he’s a tough dude.”
Custer’s relationship with Loyola forward and longtime friend Ben Richardson has also been widely publicized throughout the NCAA Tournament. Their chemistry on the floor is no myth, Seltzer said.
“I saw it a lot in practice,” Seltzer said. “Clay would just throw balls to spots and Ben would just be right there because they played together for so long.”
But why this particular Loyola team? And why this particular time? Seltzer has a theory for that, too.
Last season, the Ramblers were often buoyed by senior Milton Doyle, a two-way player with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets who posted Loyola’s top scoring average in 2016-17 and attempted 98 more shots than any other player on the roster.
“Good player, really good player, but dominated the ball a little bit,” Seltzer said. “And now they have a team that, they don’t care who scores, man. They just want to move that ball and share that ball and they play defense for each other.”
Case in point: In four NCAA Tournament games, the Ramblers have had four leading scorers.
“They’re just all about the team,” Seltzer said.
Seltzer is one Cougar connection to the small Catholic school in Chicago, but he isn’t the only one. In an alternate world, Washington State sharpshooter Carter Skaggs could have been a part of this tournament run.
Skaggs, who went to high school 130 miles away from Chicago in Logansport, Indiana, had interest from the Ramblers and took an unofficial visit.
But Moser didn’t need another scholarship guard at that time and could do no better than offer a preferred walk-on spot to Skaggs. Instead, Skaggs signed with the Cougars and became one of the Pac-12’s most exciting shooters in his debut season, finishing ninth in the conference with 69 3-pointers.
WSU also had a run-in with Loyola while Seltzer was still with the Ramblers. The teams played in the final game of the 2016 Paradise Jam. With 19 points from Custer, Loyola won 88-79. Ike Iroegbu was one of five Cougars to score in double digits with 19 points.
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