BALTIMORE — Whenever Jimmy Patsos needs a reminder of where the Loyola basketball program was in the not-too-distant past, there is always a treasured set of cufflinks.
The accessories read "6-22," a nod to Patsos' record in his first season with the long-downtrodden program. And if the cufflinks aren't enough, the man who gave them to the Greyhounds coach - the late Red Auerbach - also signed a photo with the inscription "Keep working hard" that now sits in Patsos' office.
The payoff might soon arrive at Loyola.
The Greyhounds (14-5, 7-2 Metro Atlantic) reached the midpoint of conference play in a three-way tie with Iona and Manhattan. The school's first 20-win season since 1948-49 is a legitimate possibility. So, too, is just the second NCAA tournament berth in school history.
"Do we have a chance this year? We have a chance," Patsos said. "Is it our most talented team? It's as talented, but they play better together and we're more versatile."
The Greyhounds also are the best hope among the state of Maryland's nine Division I programs to play meaningful games well into March. Only one other school in the state entered Wednesday with a winning overall record (12-6 Maryland, which faced Duke in a game that ended too late for this edition). And Loyola joins Coppin State as the only in-state schools with above-.500 records in league play.
Patsos took three of his teams to the conference semifinals. This one, though, might be his best.
"No question," St. Peter's coach John Dunne said after his Peacocks fell to Loyola on Sunday. "In the past, he's had some very talented guys, but I think this particular team, they have depth, their guys are playing to their roles, they're playing unselfishly, they play with great energy and they're very good."
They're thriving with a balanced, deep team featuring plenty of Washington ties. Forward Erik Etherly (Alexandria) is the Greyhounds' top rebounder. Silver Spring native Robert Olson leads Loyola in 3-pointers. Former Maryland forward Shane Walker has carved out a starting role with an emphasis on interior defense.
Meanwhile, Bowie native Justin Drummond is averaging 11.3 points off the bench while sixth man Anthony Winbush, another Alexandria product, frequently assures Patsos he can handle covering an opponent's best player.
"With our team, we have so many weapons, it's easy for us to overcome adversity," said guard Dylon Cormier, who leads the Greyhounds with 15.3 points per game. "Basically, we have three guys coming off the bench who can score and be starters on any other roster in our league. I feel like everybody does their part, and nobody cares who scores."
More than anything, though, Loyola simply has grown up.
The school changed its name from Loyola College to Loyola University in 2009, a switch Patsos credits for drawing greater interest in his program. But after a few years of inevitably referring to his "young team," the Greyhounds finally are an older, savvier group with a chance to make a push deep in the conference tournament and perhaps beyond.
Then there's Patsos, a former Maryland assistant and very much a protege of ex-Terrapins coach Gary Williams.
While Patsos still will exhort the ever-growing student section at Reitz Arena to make noise in the middle of the game - as he did last week during a defeat of Siena — his sideline demeanor is relatively more placid than it was earlier in his career.
"I'm much calmer — because they listen," said Patsos, who collected his 100th win this season. "R.J. Williams and Dylon and, like I said, Winbush and Drummond are really smart kids off the court. We have a more experienced team. It's my highest GPA team, last year and this year. It's the quality of the individual combined with the quality of the basketball player, and that's what Loyola is supposed to be anyway."
Put together, a breakthrough could be in the offing. The Greyhounds still have what athletic director Jim Paquette dubbed "the back nine" of conference play looming, starting with Friday's visit to Niagara.
But Patsos' eight years of unabashed hard work to reach this point with a once-barren program is something he and the rest of the Greyhounds' program won't soon forget.
If he ever did, he'll always have the cufflinks.
"He's so good with relationships, and one of the reasons he's a phenomenal recruiter," Paquette said. "You share a cab ride with him, and all the sudden the next week a Loyola T-shirt is showing up in the mailbox. He's not selling Loyola basketball. He's building a fan base, and people recognize what he has done as a coach."
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