Wrightsil and Burns - a Wolf Pack Two Pack
Zach Wrightsil and Myles Burns entered Loyola University of New Orleans together in the fall of 2018 as freshmen. Four years later they are two of the greatest players in school history, and even more.
As if Wrightsil and Burns had not already left lasting impressions at Loyola on the basis of a pair of superb four-year careers, the two added to their legacies in 2022 by bringing the school its first national championship in more than 70 years. The Wolf Pack finished a sterling 37-1 season by winning the NAIA men’s basketball national championship, defeating Southern States Athletic Conference counterpart Talladega (Ala.) College 71-56 in the title game in Kansas City.
“It feels incredible, man,” said Wrightsil in an interview with WDSU-TV in New Orleans during a celebration two days after capturing the title. “It feels like we just submitted ourselves to history forever and that’s what we did.
“Seventy-plus years in the making…this is an incredible moment, and I’m going to remember this the rest of my life. I’m going to tell my kids, my family about this, everybody. It’s incredible.”
“It means everything,” said Burns to WDSU. “It’s definitely a representation of how passionate our guys are about the game, and how serious we are, and how genuinely happy we are for each other to be able to do the things we need to do and play the roles we need to play for each other, and shows how much of a family we are as a university.”
To understand how they got here, it's important to start from the beginning.
Both were stars almost from the start at Loyola. Wrightsil led the team averaging 18.6 points per game and added 8.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, while Burns was right behind him in scoring at 15.9 points and added 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals per contest. Both were first team all-conference picks as freshmen as the Wolf Pack finished 23-12 and won a postseason game for the first time since 1946 before falling in the NAIA’s round of 16.
Wrightsil and Burns were first team all-SSAC picks again as sophomores, when Loyola won 23 games again. Burns was the conference’s defensive player of the year for the second straight time and the Wolf Pack qualified for the NAIA Division I tourney for the second straight year and third time in four years, only to never get a chance to play when the tournament was canceled due to the arrival of COVID-19.
Loyola entered the 2020-21 season with high expectations with five starters returning. The team had a number of contests canceled due to the coronavirus and played just 18 regular season games, but it was enough to earn an at-large bid to the NAIA Tournament and a top seed in its three-team pod.
The Wolf Pack handled Talladega to join the group of 16 teams to advance to Kansas City, and then knocked off sixth-seeded Marian (Ind.) in the first round before falling in overtime in the national quarterfinals to Lewis-Clark State (Idaho).
Wrightsil (17.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and Burns (16.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg) again led the way with first team all-conference honors and Burns was again named the Southern States top defensive player, but a conference title still eluded the Wolf Pack. That left Loyola with plenty to prove amidst high expectations entering the 2021-22 season.
Adversity struck before the season even started, though. Hurricane Ida hammered New Orleans in late August, and the damage included Loyola’s University Sports Complex.
The facility known as The Den is the home of a number of Loyola teams, including the basketball squads, and those teams were displaced for the rest of the semester. The men’s basketball team temporarily spent time practicing 500 miles away in Dallas, then spent the semester practicing at Tulane and at city arch-rival Xavier.
The Wolf Pack played most of their early schedule on the road, with just three home games played through the end of December, all at Tulane’s Devlin Fieldhouse. Loyola still got off to a 13-0 start, including an early win over Xavier and an exhibition victory over NCAA Division I New Orleans. Loyola faced more adversity in January when, like most every team, the COVID-19 omicron variant worked its way through. After having three games postponed early in the month, the Wolf Pack took on SSAC rival Faulkner (Ala.) on Jan. 17 without Burns. Loyola lost for the first time, falling 92-73 to snap a 16-game winning streak to start the season.
Burns was back for the next game, and with his return, the full-strength Wolf Pack proceeded to put the pedal to the metal. Loyola defeated William Carey (Miss.) by 27, drilled Middle Georgia State 129-76 and pummeled Brewton-Parker (Ga.) by 45 points. A week later, the Wolf Pack received a rematch with Faulkner, this time at home. Andrew Fava, a fellow senior in the starting lineup and sharpshooting guard, scored a career-high 30 points, including seven three-pointers. Wrightsil finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds and Burns just missed a triple-double with 21 points, ten steals and nine rebounds in a 121-69 destruction that sent a message to all that this was a team capable of a deep run in March.
The Wolf Pack rolled from there, winning 21 straight games to finish the season. The 37-1 record was the best record and fewest losses by an NAIA national champion since now-defunct Mountain State (W.Va.) University went 38-1 in winning the NAIA Division I title in 2004.
Loyola left no doubt they were the best in the NAIA in the tournament, winning their six contests by an average of 20 points per game, capped in the final by a fourth win this season over Talladega, a team ranked sixth in the final NAIA top 25 poll before the national tournament; a team who the Wolf Pack also defeated twice in conference play and then again in the Southern States tourney final.
Along with their team’s success in the tournament, Wrightsil and Burns also ensured that there was no better duo in the NAIA this year. Wrightsil finished the season as a first team NAIA All-American and was named the NAIA’s Player of the Year, after the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 18.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game while also shooting 62 percent from the field. He received NAIA All-American recognition for the fourth straight year, ascending to the first team after being named second team the year before and honorable mention his first two years.
Burns was named a second team NAIA All-American after three straight years as an honorable mention selection. The 6-6 swingman averaged 15.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and a nation’s best 4.1 steals per game, and picked up his game even more in the postseason. Burns was named the Chuck Taylor MVP of the NAIA tourney after averaging 20.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and an incredible 5.2 steals over six games.
Wrightsil and Burns both fill different roles, including Wrightsil as the mega-talented all-around offensive performer while Burns was as good as any defensive player in the country.
“Honestly, playing with Myles is a big pressure release for myself because he takes so much pressure off of me defensively that I don’t have to expend as much energy, which keeps us both in the game for long periods of time,” said Wrightsil. “The guy is a straight up defensive animal. The best defender I’ve ever played with in my life, there’s no one close.”
“Both guys were very similar in a lot of ways...long, athletic, strong, explosive,” said head coach Stacy Hollowell. “I'd say Zach is more of a steadying, calming type on the floor in some ways. He never seemed to be too up or too down. Zach is fantastic on the glass, sees the floor really well, has a basketball mind and understands the movement of the offense. He is a winner through and through and does what it takes to get the job done.
“Myles impacts the game in ways that don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet for him. Aside from leading all of college basketball in steals and leading the NAIA in offensive rebounds per game this season, Myles probably had more ‘assisted’ steals than anybody in the country. If he's not stealing it outright or deflecting it, he is creating the most awful passing angles for the ball handler.
“I can't tell you how many times I felt like the game was too close or maybe we were trailing and Myles just came out of nowhere and made the most dynamic play. And he has the ability to make multiple dynamic plays in a row that are just so deflating to our opponents.”
“Zach and Myles are great teammates,” said Fava, a one-time Florida Gator before transferring to Loyola and playing three years with the two stars. “They feed off each other and they feed off of everyone else on the court.
“We were a great team because we all knew our roles. Those guys made it really easy for the rest of us. When I transferred from Florida, I couldn’t have imagined playing with guys that played so hard on a daily basis. They defend, rebound, pass, and score effectively…they’re just all-around great guys on and off the court.”
The national championship game victory gave Loyola its first NAIA men’s basketball championship and the first school title in any sport since 1945, a span of 72 years. In fact, before Wrightsil and Burns arrived on campus, Loyola had only made three trips back to the NAIA’s big dance since their World War II-time title; one coming the year after, and another in 1995 that snapped a 49-year NAIA tourney drought.
The Wolf Pack’s history is more colorful than that. In fact, Loyola played major college schedules from the 1950s into the 1970s and made trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1954, 1957 and 1958. The school would eventually drop out of Division I and drop athletics completely in 1972; sports that would not return until coming back at the NAIA level in 1991.
The Wolf Pack would make one surprise trip to the NAIA Division II tourney in 1995 but otherwise largely struggled for the first 15 years after reinstatement. Loyola did see some success under coach Dr. Michael Giorlando, including the first 20-win season in 64 years in 2011-12, but the Pack finished 6-21 in Giorlando’s final season before he retired in 2014.
After four years as an assistant, Hollowell moved one seat over on the bench to take over the program, and in his first year, Loyola improved from six wins to 14. The Wolf Pack have not had a losing record since, and in his third year they broke through for 22 wins and an at-large bid to the NAIA Tournament.
The Wolf Pack slipped back some the next year to 16-13, but among the players coming in the next season were Wrightsil and Burns. The two were a pair of Texas natives who grew up four and a half hours apart, with Burns in Houston and Wrightsil in the northern outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth in Prosper.
“I definitely didn’t see this coming, but I’m glad that it did happen,” said Burns to WDSU. “We never wanted to speak too soon. We took it one game at a time…we didn’t think this could happen until maybe our 20th win. All we had to do was concentrate and stay focused, and we did it.”
“Thirty-seven and one, that’s…I still can’t believe we went 37-1 now,” said Wrightsil to WDSU at the championship celebration.
“It’s just been one day at a time, every single day, this hard work that we’ve been putting in every day," Wrightsil continued. “Practicing, practicing without our gym, practicing at Xavier, Tulane, every day. It was hard. We didn’t like it every day, getting up early, staying up late. It was incredible, just to trust our work, trust ourselves, and focus on our goal that we set in mind on day one, to come out and win a championship.”
“Their leadership came in how they played,” said Fava, identified by many as the team’s vocal leader. “Zach and Myles were the silent leaders of the team. Myles’ defense was unlike any other. His passion and how hard he played inspired the rest of us, especially in the national championship game. Zach has a killer mindset in that he’ll get going in a game. We will know to just feed him and he’ll do the rest.
“Just having seniors makes it easier because we all want the same thing: to win. We put aside all personal accolades to win. And in the end, Zach and Myles achieved almost all the individual accolades they could in the NAIA. They changed the Loyola basketball program and I’m just happy I was able to be an integral sidekick to those two.”
“They finish with a four-year record of 97-29 and that includes a shortened COVID season last year and a cancelled national tournament,” said Hollowell. “They helped us re-establish Loyola basketball as a national power and helped rebuild deep interest in our program throughout our state.
“There were some really strong Loyola teams through the 50's, 60's, and early 70's before the program was shut down. I hear stories of people driving down Freret Street being able to see inside the old Loyola Fieldhouse and Tulane's Fogelman Arena. They pretty much had their choice of which teams they wanted to watch on any given night. Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich, among others played in the old Loyola Fieldhouse and the New Orleans community had great pride in the Loyola teams. Zach and Myles have helped restore and maybe boost some of that pride.”
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