Off the bench

The support staff of Loyola University Chicago men's basketball doesn't score points—but the team can't win without them.

By Adam Doster

Player introductions against Drake in the championship round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO.

At Gentile Arena, they’re hiding in plain sight. Patrick Wallace—an assistant coach for Loyola University Chicago’s men’s basketball team—sits one chair over from his boss, head coach Drew Valentine, in coordinated Rambler athleisure wear. Corey Oshikoya, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, is parked on the baseline next to the giant water jugs, his medical gear in tow. To his right are Ted Sheils and Grant Raedle, both seniors and veteran basketball student managers, donning maroon Loyola polos and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.

None of them suit up, at least not anymore. They don’t speak at postgame press conferences. Casual fans won’t know their names. But basketball is a team game. And at the Division 1 level, where the smallest details decide who dances and who doesn’t, the concept of “team” is broadly defined.

Wallace played for a spell himself, at Oakland University (Valentine’s alma mater), before serving as a graduate assistant at nearby Northwestern. He took the drive down Sheridan Road three years ago, hired as Loyola’s video coordinator, and was promoted this past offseason.

Though he trains the guards on their skill development and has a hand in Loyola’s recruiting, Wallace’s most important responsibility during the season is scouting. In a league as competitive as the Missouri Valley Conference, you can’t win if you don’t understand your opponent intimately—their schemes, their traits, their weak spots.

When Wallace gets a scouting assignment, he’ll read a few articles online and poke around on advanced statistical websites (KenPom, Synergy), hoping to capture a broad understanding of the team’s tendencies. Then he’ll watch a full game of film to check, in real-time, their flow and feel. And he’s only getting started.

Coach Valentine is a guy who is always going to be prepared. He’s going to turn over every stone.

— Patrick Wallace , assistant coach, Loyola Men's Basketball Team

From there, Wallace types up his initial report, offering a high-level overview. Once that’s finished, he cues up the two games that Loyola played against the team last season, in an effort to remind himself how they tried to beat Loyola’s defense and how Loyola successfully prodded their defense. A second report follows. It’s like peeling back an onion. “Every game you watch, it opens your eyes a little bit more,” he says. “You start to feel more comfortable.”

To scout effectively takes intelligence and extreme organization. By the time Wallace is done, he’ll have watched seven or eight games, cut a “how to attack edit,” and crafted player personnel reports that fall deep into the analytical weeds. If a big man is comfortable on the left block but not the right block, Wallace will mark it.

Then the coaching staff must translate the tranche of information to their players in a way that’s beneficial and not overwhelming. The last thing Wallace wants to do is bog down his guys so they’re constantly second-guessing themselves. Instead, he tries to let the numbers tell a story.

“They’re all basketball junkies. They all want to get better,” he says. “They are always texting us at night, asking for film, asking for this or that. It’s super inspiring.”

The Ramblers can only execute the game plan, meanwhile, if the best players are healthy. That’s where Oshikoya comes in. He’s been at Loyola six years now, following a 16-year stint with the Denver Broncos in the NFL. (Towards the end of his tenure, John Elway was his boss, and Payton Manning was the team’s quarterback.) Moving into the college ranks offered Oshikoya an opportunity to supervise and to teach, which he does as an adjunct instructor of exercise science in the Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health. Loyola was an appealing destination because of its resources and the athletic department’s “family feel.”

It took Oshikoya time to adjust to the college schedule; whereas professionals have all the time in the world, it’s tricky to coordinate rehab programs around a student-athlete’s scholastic and social obligations. But the frenetic pace of game day felt utterly familiar.

It starts early, before shootaround, with treatments and check-ins. There are medical kits to prepare, emergency procedures to review. An hour before tip-off, he watches the pregame warm-ups closely. Different players have different needs: medications, specialized stretching, activation exercises, hydration reminders. Once the whistle blows, he hopes to watch in peace but is ready for anything: a lost contact, a bloody pair of shorts, a torn ACL. Afterwards, when Coach Valentine concludes his postgame speech, Oshikoya makes the rounds in the locker room, ensuring nothing troubling cropped up over the last 40 minutes. Evaluations and paperwork close out the night.

Oshikoya’s favorite window is the hour he spends in the training room methodically wrapping tape on the players’ ankles. He calls it his taping montage, and he gets swept up in the ritual. “During that hour, guys are totally themselves. You hear all about life, basketball, their relationships with each other,” he says. “We make it fun. But it’s a good time to listen in on their world.”

Sheils and Raedle pictured with the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference tournament trophy.
Sheils and Raedle pictured with the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference tournament trophy.

Sheils, an economics and Latin major, and Raedle, who is studying sociology, have heard all sorts of chatter over their four years as managers. Wherever players and coaches go, managers follow. They strip away distractions by doing the dirty work. Their primary responsibility is showing up with an open mind.

The tasks can sound mundane. You’re organizing towels and drinks and jerseys. You’re double-checking food deliveries. During timeouts, you’re grabbing stats and a dry-erase board for Valentine or you’re setting up stools. Occasionally, the tasks swerve into the picayune. A former director of basketball operations once asked Sheils to pick up his freshly tailored suit right before a game. Raedle remembers filling up former head coach Porter Moser’s car with gas.

The objective is to never get noticed. Sheils and Raedle do all they can so coaches and players never have to ask for anything. Especially for non-players who want to climb the coaching ladder, proving commitment and competence on this first rung is crucial. Getting as close as they can to the action is its own reward, too. The highs of college basketball—a conference championship, a Sweet 16 appearance—are exhilaratingly high.

It’s not a hierarchy. I’m good at filling water bottles. They’re good at putting the ball in the basket.

— Ted Sheils , student manager, Loyola Men's Basketball Team

Working alongside the team, season after season, is nothing if not intense. For Sheils and Raedle, missing practice isn’t really an option. Raedle doesn’t travel home for summer break. At Christmas, it’s two days away and then back to campus. Weekends in the fall and winter are mostly shot. But they stick with it because of the connections and the camaraderie.

“We spend pretty much our entire four-year college career with these guys,” Sheils says. “It’s 24/7 on road trips and in practice. All that time together, you start to form bonds.”

There’s plenty of bonding time in February and March, when the schedule stiffens and the stakes heighten. Wallace can count on one hand the hours of sleep he’s logging each night. Oshikoya is tracking any conceivable ding or scratch ahead of March Madness, “which is really when you want to be at your best.” To win at the highest level, in other words, requires everybody on the bench to be at the top of their game. Where they sit doesn’t so much matter.