What started out as the final game of a competitive four-year series between the men's basketball teams at Loyola and Bucknell became something more last summer. Friday night's game at Reitz Arena has become a preview, a taste of what the future holds for Jimmy Patsos and the Greyhounds.
Shortly after Loyola announced in August that it was moving from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to the Patriot League beginning in the fall of 2013, Patsos said he thought about this previously scheduled game against the Bison and how it took on a much different meaning.
But not for an obvious reason.
"The first thing I thought of was, 'Now I'm going to have to play somebody else after Christmas,' " Patsos said Thursday. "I knew that we were going to play them in the Patriot League, but I thought, 'I'm now going to have to replace them as our Christmas [break] opponent.' "
Since the series resumed, Patsos had always placed Bucknell at the same point in the schedule — this marks the fourth straight year the game will be played on the same day. But this year's matchup comes at an interesting juncture for the Greyhounds.
Friday's game follows a much-needed 13-day break for Loyola (9-3), which played its first 11 games in a span of 29 days before having a week off prior to its 79-57 victory over Mount St. Mary's on Dec. 15. Bucknell (11-2) should also help the Greyhounds get ready for Sunday's road game at Memphis.
"They are great games for us go get ready for league play," said Patsos, whose team split its first two MAAC games this season and will resume its league schedule Jan. 4 against Rider at home. "Two games in three days, how long can they practice for anyway? They don't want to listen to me that long, trust me. They want to play games."
Forward Erik Etherly, who is in graduate school at Loyola while finishing his eligibility, said that with the team's nucleus being largely upperclassmen, most are looking at the matchup with Bucknell for what it provides this season and not what it will mean in the near future after the Greyhounds join the Patriot League.
"We're just focused on this year and this particular game and not kind of a matchup that's going to happen a couple of times a year in the future," Etherly said.
The first three games of the series between the schools have been competitive, with the road team winning them all.
Last year's 72-67 victory by Loyola broke Bucknell's 18-game home winning streak.
"It's one of those things where we have to protect our home floor," said Etherly, who scored a team-high 18 points in last year's game. "It's not something that's happened a lot lately in this series but it just goes to show you how good these teams are."
Senior guard Bobby Olson said that a victory over Bucknell — which won its season opener at Purdue but is coming off a 12-point loss at Princeton — can enhance Loyola's resume in pursuing its second straight NCAA Tournament bid.
A year ago, MAAC member Iona earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after the Greyhounds won the league tournament and automatic bid for the first time in 18 years.
"This is going to be a big game for the RPI [power ranking], they're in the top 50 RPI and one of the top mid-majors in the country," Olson said. "It's more than just a regular out of conference game. This could be a really big win for us at the end of the season. We beat them on their homecourt so we know they're going to be ready to play to beat us on our homecourt this year."
Said Patsos, "They're two NCAA teams. Bucknell went two years ago, they beat Arizona in the NIT last year. There's no better way to get ready for the league. Gary Williams always told me to play a challenging non-conference schedule. Playing Kentucky last year and then Bucknell was great. This year we're playing Bucknell and then going to Memphis. I think it's good for the kids."