Being a student at Loyola, I cover the men’s basketball team not only as a journalist but also as a fan. And with six games left to go before the conference tournament in St. Louis, the season to this point has been one of extreme frustration.
Back in early November, excitement exuded from Rambler fans in anticipation of Kansas University transfer Milton Doyle. He was the talk of the town. Loyola was actually going to be a force this season. There would be no more need to constantly reference the 1963 championship in order to make ourselves feel better about the mediocre basketball we’d been watching.
Doyle lived up to expectations. The redshirt freshman, averaging 16.5 points and 4.3 rebounds a game, is a favorite to win freshman conference Player of the Year. His combination of explosive first-step and three-point shooting ability make him extremely difficult to guard. He plays like a smaller, lesser version of basketball superstar Kevin Durant.
Obviously he has a long way to go to reach those standards, but being just a freshman, Doyle could be one of the top players in NCAA basketball by his senior year.
Unfortunately, while Doyle lived up to his hype, the rest of the team has been largely asleep at the wheel. At least in the last five minutes or so of what seems like every loss this season.
To this point, the Ramblers are 9-15 overall and 4-8 in conference. That includes a 1-11 record away from Gentile Arena. However, those numbers are somewhat misleading.
Loyola had second-half leads in every loss, save the games against Indiana State University and Wichita State University.
The Ramblers have had an opportunity to win nearly every game they’ve played this season. That is what makes a fan want to bash his head repeatedly against a wall in nail-biting frustration. It is almost better for a team to be mind-numbingly awful because then you don’t watch a game with ludicrous expectations you might actually see a victory. There is something almost calming about being a defeated and deflated fan. No worries in the world.
Instead, watching the Ramblers this season has added several years to my life. I check the mirror each day to make sure there’s no salt in my pepper hair.
Because this team should be good.
Aside from the budding star Doyle, the Ramblers have an undersized but powerful forward in junior Christian Thomas, who consistently reaches double digits in points and rakes in rebounds. Sophomore Jeff White, with nifty handles and quick acceleration, is both the best scoring and passing point guard the Ramblers have had in at least the past three years. Sharp shooting sophomore Devon Turk brings instant offense off the bench. Even sophomore Nick Osbourne shows signs of developing into a solid big man with decent range.
Despite the move to the supposedly higher-quality Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), Loyola should be the third-best team in the conference. No. 4 Wichita State and Indiana State are admittedly better teams than the Ramblers. No other team has looked decidedly better than Loyola.
So why are they one game removed from being in the cellar of the MVC?
It’s a lack of depth, a lack of discipline and the inclusion of Joe Crisman in the starting lineup.
The Ramblers rarely go more than six or seven players deep. That means the bulk of the minutes go to the starting lineup. By the last five minutes of games, the players are gassed. They don’t have the energy to grind it out to the buzzer and hold on for the win. Head Coach Porter Moser should place a little more faith in little-used Jeremy King and Tony Nixon, even if it’s just for a few minutes to give the starters a breather. He tried it against Illinois State University last Sunday and the Ramblers played one of their best games of the season, winning 79-69.
In addition to no depth, the team is exceptionally young. Out of the seven players who consistently play, there are only two upperclassmen, juniors Thomas and Crisman. Young teams are prone to a lack of discipline and the Ramblers are no exception. In Loyola’s last three losses, they’ve committed 44 turnovers.
Doyle and White, who predominantly have the ball in their hands, tend to be too careless with it, especially during crucial moments of the game. Defenses are much more aggressive on ball-handlers at the collegiate level, so Doyle and White can’t be as fancy with their dribbling and passing. If the Ramblers can limit the turnovers then maybe 4-5 point leads turn into 10-12 point leads, and the stress level at the end of games goes down.
One of the most mind-boggling things for me though, is the fact that Joe Crisman is still in the starting lineup this late in the season. Yes, he is a solid defender and vocal leader on the floor.
But the guy is a liability on offense.
It’s infuriating when a player, billed as the team’s shooting guard, takes four shots the entire game. I know Moser says that it isn’t Crisman’s role on the team to be a scorer, but then he shouldn’t start. On what other team does the starting shooting guard average 4.3 points a game?
Turk, albeit not the strongest defensive player, is much better suited to start. Since most teams are aware of his three-point shooting ability, they extend their perimeter defense to guard him. This creates so much space for White and Doyle to drive as well as Thomas to post up in the paint. The offense is much more explosive when Turk is on the floor.
Alright, so the pent up frustration has been released.
With that being said, excitement still surrounds the team. There is much room to grow and the Ramblers remain alive in the MVC. It is a transitional phase for the organization and the future is bright for the young team.
To the best of my analytical knowledge, my expert advice to the Ramblers for the last six games of conference play is….utterly destroy undefeated Wichita State at the Joe a week from today.
We will rush the court.