It’s been a rough few weeks for Loyola’s men’s basketball team. They’ve lost seven of their last nine games, starters Ben Averkamp and Cully Payne have missed a combined eight games and the conference tournament is right around the corner. But Head Coach Porter Moser and the Ramblers are not concerned. Moser and his players know that this is not the same Horizon League they are used to. This year, from the third seed down it’s a logjam, and even the first and second seeds are not running away from the rest of the pack. The Horizon League Championship is up for grabs and the Ramblers are looking to make a play for it.
Right now, Valparaiso is at the top of the Horizon League standings, with University of Detroit behind them in second. Valparaiso is one of the oldest teams in the NCAA and has been at the top of the league the last couple of years. But this is a team the Ramblers can play with, a team they can beat. This just goes to show how even-footed the Horizon League is. Right now Loyola is seeded eighth in the conference, meaning that in round one they would take on Youngstown State, the fifth seed. Loyola has lost both games versus Youngstown State by a combined score of three points. Losing games that are that close means that one bounce the other way and there is a completely different outcome.
It’s been an up and down season for the Ramblers, and the recent injuries to two of the most veteran players on the team have certainly affected the young Ramblers. But as the team heads into the conference, Moser believes that his team, the sixth youngest in the country, has the potential to make a splash in the Horizon League Tournament.
“It takes a lot of effort with these young guys, and I’d like to see them build on that. Build confidence, better execution, you want to keep learning from your mistakes and getting better,” Moser said.
And the Ramblers have gotten better. Loyola has doubled their wins from a year ago and have a core that they can build around in the years to come. Sophomore Christian Thomas has emerged this year for the Ramblers. After averaging five points per game last season, Thomas is now averaging 11.6 while notching five double-doubles, and has scored double-digit points in every game since Dec. 29 versus DePaul. He capped this run on Saturday, scoring a career-high 31 points in a 70-63 loss to Kent State.
But Thomas isn’t the only Rambler stepping up. Freshman Devon Turk is a legitimate three-point threat, while freshman Jeff White is an offensive weapon that fits perfectly into Moser’s defense-first system. Sophomore Joe Crisman has also been doing his part on defense after returning from a broken finger. However, the Ramblers might be without Averkamp and Payne once the tournament starts. Averkamp has missed the last five games with post-concussion symptoms, and there is currently no timetable set for his return. Payne has sprained two ligaments in his left hand, and will miss the remainder of the regular season, as well as the first round of the tournament. Without these two veterans, the young players will have to step up if the Ramblers hope to make waves in the tournament, but Moser knows his team has what it takes to compete with the rest of the league.
“The guys feel that yeah, we’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve had some great wins and we can make a run. So I expect our guys to be a threat and I expect us to go in here with an expectation to compete at a high level ‘cause anything can happen,” he said.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Ramblers, especially without Averkamp and Payne, but unlike previous years, winning the Horizon League Championship is not impossible. This is an unpredictable Rambler team. A team that can compete with any team in the Horizon League and provide the potential for an upset in the tournament. For the first time in a long time, don’t count the Ramblers out; they have a chance to be the underdogs who push through the tournament, surprising the top teams and stealing a win. Moser agrees; it’s March, and so anything goes.
“Anything can happen in March, that’s why they call it March Madness. We’ve competed against everybody. We’ve had some heartbreaking last-second losses, but I think our guys have a confidence that there’s nobody that we’ve gone out there with and felt like we have no shot,” Moser said.
By Brigitte Sheerin