As a sophomore at Southern Illinois, point guard Bryan Mullins and his Salukis teammates dreamed of advancing to the 2007 Final Four. Although they lost in the Sweet 16, the two-time Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year has achieved that goal 11 years later -- from the sidelines.
Mullins, a Loyola assistant coach, and the Ramblers (32-5, 15-3) earned a trip to San Antonio following their 78-62 win over Kansas State in the Elite Eight on Saturday. Mullins' defensive IQ has carried over from his playing days, as the Ramlbers have yielded a mere 63.5 points per game in this NCAA tournament.
"Brian is a tremendous basketball mind and a rising star in the profession," insists fellow assistant Matt Gordon.
Mullins, a Downers Grove native, exhibits much of his worth during Loyola's pregame preparation, Gordon said, where Mullins will pick a part the opponents' offense and their individual tendencies. Gordon also credits Mullins for his in-game adjustments, which were on display in the Ramblers' 69-68 victory against Nevada in the Sweet 16.
Clinging to a four-point lead at halftime, Mullins suggested sitting 6-foot-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig in favor of 6-5, 230-pound Aundre Jackson so Loyola could utilize a quicker defensive lineup and push the pace via missed shots. The Ramblers subsequently hit their first 13 shots of the second half.
"That's just the difference from this year's team and in years past is our versatility and our depth," Mullins said. "You look at all the games in the tournament, each team we played was really different, but we matched up in different ways with them."
Mullins, who primarily works with the guards, cited Loyola coach Porter Moser's mastery in reeling in floor-spacers. He noted how Moser places a prerequisite for their recruits to be consistent shooters. The unit boasts seven players with at least a 35.4 percentage from 3-point rang, and one of them is freshman Lucas Williamson, who is hitting at 42 percent.
Since the program already signed the maximum amount of recruits in the fall of 2016, Mullins said the staff wasn't very involved in Williamson's recruitment until the offseason -- when other scholarships reopened. The two-time state championship at Whitney Young committed to the school last April, choosing the Ramblers over UIC and Northern Illinois.
It took only a few practices for the 6-4, 190-pound Williamson to learn the level of Mullins' intensity as a coach.
"He (Mullins) was screaming at me, 'Gotta be able to defend at this level! You can't defend at this level, you can't play!' " Williamson said. "After a game when I played good defense, I'll be like, 'I looked like Bryan Mullins out there.' "
In Loyola's 64-62 win over Miami in the first-round, Williamson showcased his Mullins-like tenacity, forcing Hurricanes' guard Lonnie Walker IV into a critical turnover with 23.5 seconds remaining.
Gordon said Loyola guard Ben Richardson, the current MVC Defensive Player of the Year, reminds him of Mullins because of his on-ball and off-ball defense, which is relies on being physical, vertical and legal.
"We constantly preach in practice show your hands (on defense)," Mullins said. "We constantly say fouling negates hustle."
Statistically, the Ramblers' Final Four opponent is a carbon copy of their approach. Michigan has allowed only 59 points per game in the tournament. Before tip-off on Saturday evening, though, expect Mullins to embrace the moment he didn't get to experience as a student athlete.
"To do it (having success) in the city that I'm from, coach Moser's from, coach Gordon's from, it makes it better because you have so much pride in the city of Chicago," Mullins said.