It’s official: The Lions are back from COVID-related athletic postponement. Stan Johnson’s squad knew this season would be a war of attrition as well as a competitive challenge, and it therefore would have been unwise to assume that their 2021 campaign would be anything but atypical.
On Dec. 26, Athletic Director Craig Pintens announced an in-season pause for the men’s basketball team due to “positive cases of COVID-19 and related contact tracing.” It came at a critical juncture in the Lions’ season, as they were scheduled to finish out their non-conference schedule on Dec. 29.
Despite a two-week drought from team games and practices, the Lions’ first-year head coach remains optimistic. Loyolan reporters asked Johnson what was different about the program in his first year as their leader. He responded with: “Our core values are selflessness, being a connected group of people and being relentless. Those are the three things we preach: It’s about LMU, not about you. It means that the mission is more important than anybody’s individual goal, which means that you need to lay it on the line for your teammates every single day.”
Coach Johnson went on to explain that his balanced approach applies to all aspects of LMU basketball. “If you’re relentless, it means you’re attacking everything,” he said. “I want ‘attacking’ people. It’s not just in terms of who they are as basketball players … we attack in the classroom too. We attack how we eat.”
“We had a 3.06 average GPA last semester from our guys. It’s not just showing up on court, it’s showing up in every facet of who we are as people.”
That mark is really quite impressive when you consider that it was the highest cumulative GPA in the history of LMU men’s basketball. It should encourage fans to buy into Coach Johnson’s long-term vision for the program.
On the other hand, LMU basketball typically experiences premature optimism early in the season. In 2019, the Lions started 5-5 against non-conference opponents, only to stumble to a 4-12 finish vs. West Coast rivals. This year, it would be all too easy to blame the Lions’ usual conference woes on their pandemic-inflicted break from all team activities. But once again, Coach Johnson’s response expressed confidence in his men to display selflessness, relentlessness and connectivity going forward.
“Since late August, we’ve had a mantra,” he said. “‘Win the Wait’. While everyone is waiting for this to be over, we have to find ways to win. So, when [the postponement] hit, it was nothing new for us.”
“Teams that can pivot, and not lose enthusiasm, are the teams that will give themselves the best chance to win this year. We have to pivot and embrace adversity, because there’s beauty in it.”
For what it’s worth, last Sunday’s game against San Fransisco was certainly indicative of a culture shift. Eli Scott contributed his 17th career double-double en route to a 68-60 victory, and campus legend Keli Leaupepe finished the game 11-for-11 from the free throw line. Don’t look now, but LMU is riding a four-game win streak.
“Our whole thing is, the harder it gets, the better it is for us,” added Johnson.
So, instead of lamenting a few lost practices, the Lions have remained true to their new culture on and off the floor. And so far, a surprise run in the WCC doesn’t seem too far-fetched.