There aren't many people who can match or exceed Cully Payne's total of college choices.
What Payne does know is it hasn't been a mistake to be right by Lake Michigan and playing basketball for Loyola University. The Schaumburg High School graduate feels right at home on Chicago's far North Side after a long and circuitous odyssey.
"I really believe everything happens for a reason," Payne said. "I'm lucky to land in Chicago with a great athletic program on the rise and at a great academic school.
"My family and grandparents are 35-40 minutes away and it's a great environment in the city. I couldn't ask for a better place."
Payne is also glad to be back in the competitive mix after being sidelined for nearly two years. His 2010-11 season at Iowa was over after five games because of a sports hernia injury and then he had to wait and watch the Ramblers finish 7-23 last season following his decision to transfer.
But Payne's return has helped spark Loyola's improvement to a 10-7 record even though second-year coach Porter Moser said it is the sixth-youngest team in the country. The 6-foot-1 point guard is third on the team in scoring at 8.2 points and is averaging 4.6 assists with nearly a 2-to-1 ratio to turnovers.
"There is no question that his comfort level, he's gotten that back," Moser said. "Every day he brings it. He's a competitive, competitive kid. You want your point guard to have a similar personality to you (as a head coach) and he wears his emotions on his sleeve."
Payne originally thought he'd be wearing the uniform of cross-town rival DePaul when he made a highly publicized verbal commitment as an eighth grader before spending his first two years of high school at Burlington Central. He decommitted while he was at Schaumburg and planned to go to Alabama until Mark Gottfried was fired.
He then picked Iowa, where The Sporting News named him to the all-Big Ten freshman team after he started all 32 games and averaged 8.7 points and 3.8 assists. But after Todd Lickliter was fired and replaced by Fran McCaffery, Payne moved on after his injury-abbreviated sophomore season with the Hawkeyes and liked what was on the horizon with Moser taking over at Loyola.
"It's great, but not playing was one of the hardest things I had to endure," said Payne, who also missed the second half of his senior year at Schaumburg with a back injury. "I love this game so much. I have great teammates, and that makes everything better, along with a great coaching staff. Winning always helps things, too.
"I definitely think it was much harder than I thought it would be. I thought it would fly by and I thought it would be nothing too bad to endure. But as the games went on, the more I wanted to be out there playing and having the hype of the games and the big crowds."
Payne said there were benefits to being an interested observer in Moser's first year at Loyola.
"I definitely appreciate the game and how it has changed my life in a way," Payne said. "The other positive I took out of it is how much I learned and saw how the game flowed and the things I can implement now."
Payne's arrival has also been a big assist for a team that struggled at the point guard last year. Part of Moser's rationale behind Loyola's off-season trip to Italy was to get Payne acclimated to playing with new teammates and in a new system.
"The hard thing is two years is a long time for anybody to stop playing," Moser said. "The first five games he really struggled shooting the ball but since then he's been around 40 or 41 percent.
"It would have been hard for anybody, but as his confidence has grown, the rest of the guys are feeding off him."
Moser also had to remind Payne the Ramblers needed him to do more than just feed his teammates. That was evident when he broke out with 24 points in their first victory over DePaul since 1989.
"Each game we're more and more on the same page," Payne said of Moser. "We have a ton of respect for each other and trust in each other. That's super-important between a player and coach."
It's a relationship Payne hopes to have for two more full seasons along with his brother Quinten, a senior at St. Charles North who is also coming to Loyola. Cully Payne is appealing his case for a sixth year of eligibility to the NCAA because of his injury-shortened second season at Iowa.
Right now, Payne is looking to get the Ramblers back on track after they lost for the fourth straight time -- three by a combined total of 5 points -- by a 61-59 score at UIC on Wednesday. He's received a taste of some of the tradition with the 50th anniversary celebration of the the school's NCAA championship team.
"He wants to help put Loyola back on the map," Moser said of a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tourney since 1985.
And that would be the perfect destination on what has been a long and winding road for Payne.
"I'm super-happy here," Payne said. "I think I really did make the right choice."
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org